A Personal Portrait of SMS: Innovation and Application for Progress

Article excerpt

I am currently entering my 11th year in the once fledgling field of "mobiles for development." The story of "m4d," as it is fondly known, and the countless stories of how mobiles have impacted the lives of hundreds of millions of people throughout the developing world, are ones that are closely tied to my own.

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I would like to share some of those stories with you, along with a few highlights from my own journey--lessons learned, the impact of mobile phones on the lives of ordinary (and not so ordinary) Africans, the background to my own FrondineSMS project, and how mobile technology fosters "democratized development" across the world. But let us start at the beginning.

A Traveler's Tales

My interest in Africa goes back exactly 20 years when, in 1993, I set out to help a school-building project for a small community in Northern Zambia. In 1995,1 returned to the continent, this time to Uganda, to help complete a hospital building. Three years later, I was back in Uganda, this time spending the summer carrying out conservation work. In all this time, the only way I could communicate with friends and family back home was by airmail or by using the odd payphone if we were lucky enough to (a) find one, and (b) find it working. The Internet had hardly taken off at home let alone in much of the developing world, and mobile phones were the stuff of rich businessmen and women in the West.

I have been fortunate to have spent time in Africa both before and during its communication revolution. I have been able to return to towns and villages, which during my earlier visits had no telecommunications infrastructure to speak of, and see the considerable impact it has now had.

In the summer of 2008, 1 did just that. During a field trip with the Grameen Technology Centre, I returned to Masindi, a town in Western Uganda with a population of around 35,000. I was previously there in 1998, not that long ago in the grand scheme of things, but a lifetime in the short history of the mobile phone. Back then the town's dominating mobile phone mast was not there and neither were any of the mobile phone shops, Internet cafes, or village phone operators. The only phone line out of town--if and when it was working--was courtesy of the local post office. Every couple of weeks we would drive to Masindi to collect our post from the Ugandan Wildlife Authority office, post our letters, have a cold beer, and buy a few "luxuries." Occasionally, we would join the long queue and attempt to phone home. There was no text messaging in those days.

Just as I had done ten years earlier, I sat in the Travellers Rest drinking coffee, watching Masindi life go by. Unfinished buildings littered the edge of town, a scene not unlike the last time I was there, except this time, endless mobile advertising banners broke the view. In a bold marketing ploy, the entire cafe was branded "Celtel red," yet it was only just managing to compete with the "MTN yellow" across the road. People were busy in their shops--busy carrying goods, busy ferrying passengers on their bikes, and busy on their phones. The mobile revolution was here, there, and everywhere for all to see. What has happened in Masindi is happening all over Africa, a continent which now boasts almost 800 million subscribers and a penetration rate fast approaching 70 percent.

Early Signs

The beauty is that no one expected it. Back in 2004, I co-authored one of the earlier reports on the potential of mobile phones in conservation and development work. Focused mainly on Africa, we wrote it at a time when most people believed that rural Africans on a couple of dollars a day would never be able to afford a phone, let alone the credit to keep it going. Of course, nine years ago, mobile phones were expensive, but in many places, the rampant growth of second-hand markets made affordable handsets available for the first time. …