Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Kiva Innovations: Getting information technology into the right hands

The day is etched in the world’s collective consciousness: On January 18, 2012, Wikipedia went dark.

Okay, so maybe I’m being a little dramatic...

The protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act (better known as SOPA) only lasted a day, but its impact endured. And it begged a troubling question: What if someone could flip a switch and cut off access to information?

It’s hard to imagine, given the innumerable apps, smart phones and websites that are always in reach or a click away. We’re saturated with information to the point that we struggle to limit it. At the same time, we search for more and more: How is this restaurant? Where can I park around here? What’s this weird spot on my arm?

Logging on?

Some have claimed that the web is the greatest invention in human history, and it’s hard to disagree. But in large parts of the world, the Internet is non-existent. Once thought to be a silver bullet for addressing poverty, the web’s growth and utility has been limited by disappointing realities.

Today, the Internet is still not used in most of the developing world. In Indonesia, only 9% of all people have access. In sub-Saharan Africa this number is less than 7%. And programs trying to change this picture repeatedly face insurmountable obstacles.

In one study of 50 Internet tele-centers across South Asia and Africa, the vast majority closed less than a year after opening due to high costs and low demand. It wasn’t that locals didn’t value information, they just couldn’t see how this specific technology benefited their daily lives. In other words, the Internet wasn’t the right tool for the job.

So what is the right tool?

As Internet growth has stagnated, mobile phone use has skyrocketed. In sub-Saharan Africa, 60% of the population now has mobile phone coverage, and more than 80% reports having access to a mobile phone.

As I discussed in my last blog on the subject, mobile technology is often the first form of modern telecommunications infrastructure to make it to rural parts of Africa and South Asia. The result has been a reduction in communication costs, increased productivity in agriculture and labor markets and improved consumer welfare. This has all been achieved quite literally by amplifying the voice of the poor.

As markets mature, cell phones are evolving from simple communication devices to multifaceted service delivery platforms. In developing counties, this means more flexible tools built to spread useful information to the world’s poorest producers and consumers.

At Kiva, we believe that financing can play a role in supporting organizations that use mobile technology to reach farmers in remote rural areas. These groups send out relevant information such as real-time commodity prices, weather forecasts and veterinary advice to empower locals by helping them better access markets and increase their productivity.

In Indonesia, Kiva Field Partner PT Ruma offers clients the unique ability to purchase mobile minutes that can be used on any one of the country’s 11 networks. The company has also recruited and trained over 10,000 low-income entrepreneurs to build out a branch network that extends far into under-resourced areas.

Major telecommunications companies have been slow to follow suit. Ruma believes this is its biggest advantage. By targeting underserved populations with products and information they need, Ruma has discovered a way to tap into the purchasing power of the poor at scale.

It doesn’t stop at minutes

Ruma has also developed a mobile job listings service to reduce the number of Indonesians forced to migrate to cities to find employment. Called Kerja Lokal, this service collects thousands of rural and local job openings and notifies clients via text message when relevant opportunities pop up.

Cell phones are often not a solution for the poorest people -- and they can’t replace roads or electricity. But companies like PT Ruma have demonstrated that people in developing countries are just as hungry for information. Infrastructure may take years to build, but information can travel at the speed of light.

Who knows, just one job listing or piece of business advice could give someone the bump they need to pull themselves and their family out of poverty. We just have to get the right tools into the right hands.

Ian Matthews is an intern on Kiva’s Strategic Initiatives team, looking for new partners and loan products to extend opportunities and access to even more people around the world. Ian has an MSc in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science and has previously done field work in Honduras. Send him your feedback on this blog series at blog@kiva.org.

This is part of a larger series on Kiva’s strategic initiatives and innovative loan products, which are designed to expand opportunities for more borrowers. Kiva is excited to partner with companies and organizations that use mobile technology to provide access to information.

photos courtesy of georgiap, webethere, CGAP, apdk