According to emarketer.com, smartphone users will reach 1.75 billion by the end of 2014. So in a world dominated by iPhones and Androids, can you remember the last time you saw a “feature” phone? When I think of “feature” phones, I think of Snakes (the game) and Nokia candy-bar phones--all at least a decade old now. Along a similar thread, can you guess what country leads the world in the use of mobile money? One might think that with the plethora of options we enjoy--think Google Wallet, Paypal, Venmo, and Visa’s V.me--that the U.S. is clearly leading the way. So it might be surprising then to discover that the answer is Kenya, a third world country in East Africa.
Over the Fall and Winter quarters of 2014, I was working on my Applied Management Research (AMR) project, helping a non-profit in Uganda with distributing socially-beneficial goods to the last-mile consumer. It proved to be a very challenging project--properly scoping the engagement, working within the available resources and seemingly apparent constraints, and of course, the 10-hour time difference. In the end, my team realized that the best and only solution we could recommend relied on the use of technology, even if it was decade old technology.
So if I could sum up the takeaway from my AMR experience it would be: Don’t underestimate old- tech because it can still make a huge impact in the world. Transformational, in fact.
Let me further my point by focusing on two companies I came upon during my research in East Africa for AMR--m-pesa and Copia Global, both operating in Kenya.
Launched in 2007, m-pesa is a fast, secure, and convenient way to transact on mobile, powered by Safaricom, Kenya’s largest mobile-network operator. In a world where “feature” phones are still the norm and data plans are still a new concept, m-pesa has managed to completely transform the movement of money, achieving penetration rates unseen even in the United States. In fact, in only a short 7 years, already 25% of the nation’s gross national product flows through this network, utilized by over 17 million Kenyans--that’s more than two thirds of the adult population. So while the country might not have ready access to banks and ATM’s, it has been able to design and build a mobile money infrastructure that rivals and surpasses first world countries. m-pesa has been so successful that it is expanding out to neighboring Tanzania and even out to Afghanistan and India. I’ll never look at a “feature” phone the same way again. Will you?
My second example is the late-2013 startup called Copia Global, a consumer catalog order and delivery system for nonperishable household goods serving Base of the Pyramid consumers in the developing world. When I first read about their business model, I thought “So it’s like Sears in the 1880’s, but in modern day Kenya?” While the concept of a catalog might seem archaic, the underlying vision and strategy is what is truly transformational and innovative. First, allow me to define what Base of the Pyramid consumers are. Some common characteristics of Base of the Pyramid consumers are low income ($1-$3/day), subsistence living (poor education and low skill), and extreme poverty (lack the basic necessities of life--food, water, shelter). On the surface, Copia Global will provide goods to these consumers, but the real value will be to measure consumer demand in these areas that have traditionally been inaccessible and underserved--think “big data” meets “marketing” meets “operations.” Powered with this information, Copia Global is able to forecast what consumers want and when they want it. Working together with m- pesa, they have also set up a swift ordering and payment process. From ordering to delivery, Copia Global is able to turn around orders within 2 days. With all this success and data under their belt, one can’t help but wonder, can this be the Amazon of Kenya?
Before I wrap up this post, I’d just like to pose some questions for thought. While m-pesa and Copia Global have been hugely successful abroad, what lessons can we bring back to the U.S? Furthermore, what other technologies are we overlooking that can be transformational in third world countries? Are companies these days so consumed by advancing tech that we’ve forgotten how to design for a purpose? It really makes you wonder. But the next time you travel, keep your eyes open. Technology is making a difference around the world no matter where you go. Connecting. Empowering. Transforming.
For more information:
- Mobile Money in Kenya http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2013/05/economist-explains-18
- m-pesa - http://www.safaricom.co.ke/mpesa_timeline/timeline.html
- Copia Global: http://www.copiaglobal.com/
- Base of the Pyramid: http://hbr.org/2011/06/the-globe-segmenting-the-base-of-the-pyramid/ar/1