What makes a life-changing app? It should make people’s lives better. It might help children with autism express themselves, encourage us to eat healthier or motivate us to work out more often. Now what if apps could help improve the lives of billions of people in the developing world?
They can, they do and it’s only the beginning.
Mobile phones are changing the international development space. There are over 5 billion wireless subscribers worldwide, of which over 70% live in low- and middle-income countries. In some places, more people have wireless service than access to the electrical grid or other traditional infrastructure systems. NGOs and private companies alike have already begun to leverage mobile phones to improve the quality of life for people in developing nations — a 2009 study showed a 1.2% GDP increase for every 10% increase in mobile penetration. Banking and healthcare stand out as examples of mobile apps delivering tangible benefits to underserved populations.
M-PESA: Airtime as Currency
More than half the world’s adult population is “unbanked,” meaning they don’t use traditional financial services for savings or transactions. M-PESA is a mobile banking service launched by Vodafone that allows users to send payments to others via SMS. The payments are credited to the recipients account as mobile minutes and can be used up or redeemed for cash at M-PESA agent stations. The service is live in Tanzania, Afghanistan and Kenya, where adoption has reached an estimated twenty-five percent of the population.
mHealth: Mobile Health Services
In some parts of the world, where the doctor to patient ratio approaches 1:20,000, mobile phones can provide potentially life-saving medical information. Some mHealth services provide basic education and awareness information; for example, Text4baby Russia provides free health information to expecting mothers tailored to their baby’s due date. Other mHealth services deliver valuable patient information to local doctors. The South African service SIMpill, a pill bottle with a SIM card, monitors HIV/AIDS treatment compliance by sending a text message when medication is taken. It will also send SMS reminders to patients when they forget to take their prescribed doses.
Mobile apps in the developing world are already changing lives, but it’s only the beginning. Most of the apps deployed today are built to leverage SMS technology on feature phones. For most communities, smartphones are prohibitively expensive. However, as they continue to decrease in price, we may be nearing a time when hundreds of millions of people in the developing world gain access to the full app ecosystem available on smartphones.
The opportunities for mobile apps in the developing world are endless. Whether by providing banking services or healthcare information, apps can truly make people’s lives better. Most exciting of all, the great work that’s already being done in this space is just the beginning. We can’t wait to see the next generation of truly life-changing apps for the developing world.