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.

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 FrontlineSMS 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, I 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, I 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 café 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. Nothing was thrown away there.

At the same time, getting new phones into the hands of the masses has been a key goal of programs such as the GSM Association’s “Emerging Market Handset Initiative,” announced back in 2005, an objective which continues to this day with the handset manufacturers themselves, many of whom are working hard to develop phones that sell for under US$20 for this very unique “bottom of the pyramid” market.

Understanding consumers in emerging markets—many of whom have very different requirements for a phone—has spurred the development of handsets with multiple phone books, phones marketed as torches, and even handsets with no screen. If you think that most of the innovation is going on in the West, take a moment to look at what is happening in Africa. Even operators are getting in on the act, providing services such as “Call Me,” which allows Vodacom subscribers in South Africa to send up to five messages per day, free of charge, requesting a call back from the receiver.

Services like these have emerged in response to users who would have previously “flashed” the person they wished to speak to by ringing their phone once and hanging up. “Call Me” formalizes the process, helps minimize network traffic through fewer prematurely disconnected calls, and allows operators to add value by differentiating their service from rival operators. Much of the research, often the catalyst for these new devices and services, is increasingly led by fellow anthropologists Jonathan Donner at Microsoft Research and Jan Chipchase at Frog Design (formerly of Nokia), both of whom spend considerable amounts of their time studying mobile phone use in the field and, in Jan’s case, working his way through a fair number of bicycles in the process.

When it comes to mobile innovation, the gap between developed and developing countries is negligible. Mobile innovation in the West, largely technology-led, sits in contrast to that in the developing world where combating the geographic, economic, and cultural constraints of users is considered a more sensible way to proceed. This explains the emergence of the torch phone for users who live in areas with little or no regular light or multiple phone books for users who share their phones with family members. On the heavyweight side, a plethora of financial applications have hit the streets, with Safaricom’s mPesa service getting by far the biggest press to date.

Regularly used by millions of Kenyans, you often hear it described as the “Kenyan Debit Card,” allowing users to transfer money through their mobile phones to help out family and friends, or to buy and sell goods and services across the airwaves. For the tens of millions of Kenyans without bank accounts, mPesa represents both a revolution and a revelation. In 2013, 50 percent of Kenya’s GDP is expected to pass through mPesa.

Entrepreneurship Meets Innovation

Innovation is not always as official or formalized as this, however. People in developing countries are rarely simple, passive recipients of a technology and rarely wait for outsiders to provide solutions to their problems. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive, as evinced by the masses of thriving small businesses you find on the street corners of every village, town, and city.

During my work with Grameen in 2008, I stumbled across “A Review of The Postal and Telecommunications Sector: June 2006 to June 2007,” a report in which the Executive Director of the Uganda Communications Commission presented some incredible statistics. Official employment in Uganda’s ICT industry—dominated by telecommunications workers—sat at a little over 6,000 back then. The number of unofficial workers who were not directly employed, but who were making a living on the back of the industry, was estimated at a whopping 350,000. Amazing as it may be, Uganda is no exception. This is happening all over the African continent. The informal sector is alive and well and knocking spots off its “formal” counterpart.

These “informal” businesses come in all shapes and sizes, as do the kiosks, from which many of them operate. They are manufactured using anything from wood to metal sheeting or made up of simple tables and plastic chairs. Mobile phone repair shops, often equipped with just a handful of basic (and frighteningly large) tools, have sprung up to help owners squeeze the maximum life out of their devices, many being used in some of the harshest conditions imaginable. Mobile phones are attached to bikes (two and three wheelers) and even boats, and taken to where the business is.

In Uganda, these bikes, known locally as boda bodas, are hooked up with spare batteries and desktop mobile devices to create what are affectionately known as “Bodafones.” I met the owner of one on Kampala Road and got talking to him through the universally accepted language of English Premier League football. Winning people over is crucial if you are not to be denied that one-in-a-million photo opportunity.

The Charging Challenge

In “Mobile Telephony: Leveraging Strengths and Opportunities for Socio-Economic Transformation in Nigeria,” Christiana Charles-Iyoha sheds some fascinating light on the barriers to mobile ownership among Nigerian market traders. Erratic power supply and difficulty in charging the phones came up at the top, with a staggering 87 percent. Of course, Nigerians are not alone with this problem, and entrepreneurs are coming up with ingenious methods of meeting this crucial consumer need. Today, in some rural areas, users are able to charge their phones from a car battery, which is taken to the nearest town, charged up, and dragged back. In more urban areas with better main supply, charging kiosks have sprung up, allowing users to recharge their phones while they wait.

Any discussion on mobile telephony, developing countries, and economic opportunity would not be complete without a mention of Village Phone, Grameen’s pioneering work in Bangladesh, which later took root in Africa. A number of competing Village Phone schemes have since sprung up, providing business opportunities to mostly women, usually in rural areas, who borrow a small amount of money to purchase a phone. Members of the community, or passers-by, pay a small fee to make a call or send a text message. Some of these schemes use desktop-style phones, which many owners prefer because of their ruggedness and the fact that they are less likely to go walkabout. Culturally, bigger is also generally seen as better, a view somewhat at odds with our attitude towardmobile devices in the Western world.

Other schemes use standard mobile phones, such as Nokia’s entry-level 1100 (for a while the best-selling phone on the planet), while Motorola developed its own “pay phone” specifically for the job, allowing operators to enter the number of units to be used before handing the phone over to the caller. This helped ensure customers did not talk for longer than they had paid for, and negated the earlier practice of operators having to rudely grab phones back with their clients in mid-sentence or having to smack their hands down on the hang-up button of a desk phone before they were able to say goodbye.

In many places, I have seen handsets used primarily as phone books, torches, or methods of keeping track of bad debts, but despite some ingenious offline applications, mobiles are not of much use as a communications device without a signal. On the whole, operators are doing what they can, but with geographically dispersed populations, often with little disposable income, it is sometimes difficult to make a business case for increasing coverage to an area with a minimal and scattered population. But where networks do exist, operators in East Africa are blazing a trail, doing something unheard of in Europe and in many other parts of the world. We are talking roaming, and we are talking “one network.”

Celtel, MTN, and Vodacom are just three of a growing band of African operators tearing down national boundaries to allow their customers seamless mobility as they travel from country to country. Advertising boards are scattered everywhere. “One SIM card. 6 countries,” proclaims Celtel. “Travel with your Vodacom SIMcard and enjoy Vodacom tariff in Kenya and Uganda,” boasts Vodacom. The speed of change in the mobile industry—more so it seems in developing countries—continues unabated. Again, the telecommunications gap between the so-called developed and developing countries looks a little blurred. Travelling across central Africa with a single SIM, on a single tariff, is a businessperson’s dream.

Enter the Anthropologist

As mobile phones have worked their way far and wide across the continent, I’ve been busy doing more than just travelling around documenting their impact, as fun as it has been. With my anthropology hat on, I have also taken a strong interest in how some of the poorest people in some of the remotest communities acquire a phone in the first place, and how their usage habits are shaped by their lack of access to power, signal, and credit. Owning a phone is one thing; keeping it running is quite another.

Each year, tens of thousands of people around the world volunteer to live off a couple of dollars a day as part of the Live Below The Line campaign, designed to help them “get a better understanding of the challenges faced by people living in extreme poverty, and to raise funds for crucial anti-poverty initiatives.” There are few better ways to help people understand the challenge hundreds of millions of people around the world face than to put them in a similar position or predicament.

But the hundreds of millions of people having to make a living off a couple of dollars a day are not only trying to buy food and water for themselves and their families. They are also trying to save to send their kids to school, to buy medicine, and to keep a roof over their heads. In the context of their phone ownership, they also need to find extra cash to keep their phone charged, topped up, usable, and functional. There is already growing evidence highlighting the tough decisions mobile owners have to make when balancing a restricted household budget, with some users spending up to 70 percent of their household income on their phones, often at the expense of food.

To better understand the challenges these families face, let us apply the Live Below The Line concept to mobile phone ownership for a moment. What would an equivalent “$2 a day” challenge look like for mobile?

We need to calculate the average telecommunications spending for an average mobile owner in a developing country. Without specific data, I will take a stab at US$1 per week. At the very least it is a nice round number. If I were to cancel my mobile contract today and move to pre-pay, how would I manage with that kind of budget, and what decisions would I have to make on a daily basis before hitting “Send,” “Tweet,” “Like,” or “Dial” on my phone?

Service costs. For the first time I would need to read up and make sure I fully understood all of the price plans and offers from each of the mobile operators in my country. Right now I have no idea, because I have never needed to know. If I’m to maximize my US$1 per week, I need to know under which conditions and under which operators will be cheapest.

SIM choice. I would need to go out and acquire one SIM card for each of those operators, and get used to swapping it in and out on a regular basis before making calls, sending texts, tweeting, checking emails, and so on in order to maximize my budget. Ideally, I would have a phone which takes multiple SIM cards to make this all slightly less painful, but they are not available in much of the “developed” world.

Configuration. Assuming I am able to access the Internet and can afford to do so (see below), whenever I switch SIM cards, I would need to learn how to change the WAP/Web configuration settings on the phone (which are network-dependent). This can be a challenge at the best of times, and even more so for less technical users.

Web challenges. Assuming my phone and SIM are data-enabled, I’d be able to access the Internet. The only problem is I have very little idea what the costs would be. Right now, with my generous browsing allowance, I can pop onto Twitter or read the news, but if I had to pay for each page view or chunk of downloaded data, how would I know what the costs are ahead of time? Again, I would need to make a conscious decision whether or not I could afford the luxury, and confusion over data costs could easily (and quickly) be the death of me and my balance.

My friends and family network.?I would need to make sure I knew which network each friend and family member were on, so I would know which SIM to choose before making a call or texting (same-network calls or texts are cheaper in many countries). And with many of these contacts also likely having multiple SIM cards, I would need to be confident that I could manage a complex address book.

To call, tweet, text or not to call, tweet or text??Before making a call, or sending an SMS, I would need to make a conscious decision whether or not I could afford it and weigh up any cost with the anticipated benefit. Gone would be the days of having the luxury of thousands of minutes and texts to “waste” away with idle, social chat.

Battery. I would need to put aside perhaps 25 cents per week to cover the cost of charging (electricity isn’t free), depending on how much I used the phone. If charging costs were prohibitive, then I would need to make sure my phone was off when I did not need it (or was not expecting a call) in order to maximize the time between charges. Older Nokia phones would be a favorite here, famed for their long battery life. iPhones and other smart phones, which barely last a day between charges, would be hugely problematic.

Flashing and beeping. If I did need to contact people urgently, and assuming I was okay with them being burdened with the call cost, I could “flash” or “beep” them (ring their phone a couple of times and hang up and wait for a call back). Since there is no real culture of this where I live, I am not sure if it would work, and if the person I was calling was also short of credit, we could have a stalemate.

Calling codes. For short, regular messages—“I’m at work,” “I’ve got the shopping” or “Leaving now”—I’d possibly need to devise a system where I could ring a recipient phone and use a set number of rings (or sequence of missed calls) to relay the message. I needed to come up with a range of “survival strategies” in order to protect my phone credit.

Regardless of how well I did with this challenge, one thing is abundantly clear—my phone and I would have a different kind of relationship than we do today, and I’d certainly have to be a lot better organized than I am now.

Time to Build a Mobile Tool

Although on the surface this may have all been a little fun, understanding your end user is key for all non-profit organizations trying to build mobile solutions to solve developmental problems—and there are many. Building tools in isolation and making sweeping assumptions about how people use their phones—even the kinds of phones they have—can be the death of many projects, however well-intentioned. I have spent the best part of the last 10 years writing about the need for appropriate technologies, where users and their needs come first and field research proceeds any technical development work. This has all been central to my own work since I developed my own solution to a developing-country communication problem over seven years ago.

That all started in January 2003. After a broken leg had triggered a premature end to my tenure at a primate sanctuary in Nigeria the previous August, I found myself available to work for a ground-breaking project looking to explore the potential of mobile technology in African conservation. Throughout 2003 and 2004, I spent months on the ground in South Africa and Mozambique looking at how communications technology could support, and expand, the conservation effort. It was not until 2005, during an evening at home in Cambridge, that the solution to a problem I had seen randomly came to me.

With the African Kruger National Parks working to re-engage the communities around the park, and with community members beginning to slowly get phones, we had the idea of using text messaging to open up a quick and easy two-way communication channel for everyone. The problem was that there were no platforms around back then to allow two-way group text messaging in places like the edge of Kruger National Park. The solutions that did exist were web-based, and getting on the Internet was not an option.

Building FrontlineSMS

Despite seeing these communication challenges first hand, I did not initially consider developing a solution. In fact, not until a few months after my final trip to South Africa in late 2004 did the seed of an idea for a messaging platform emerge.

When it did one rainy Saturday evening at home in the United Kingdom, I set about raising a small amount of money, took myself through a crash-course in Windows programming, bought a selection of mobile phones and cables, and got to work coding what was to become FrontlineSMS. I had written numerous software programs before but none based around text messaging. Very few people, in fact, were writing mobile software back then, so I had little to go on.

Released in October 2005 after five weeks of rapid development, FrontlineSMS was my answer to the field-based communication problems being faced by the likes of Kruger National Park. Using a low-cost laptop and a cheap mobile phone and cable, FrontlineSMS suddenly allowed non-profit organizations working in the field to manage two-way communications with their target communities, using nothing more than the standard mobile phone signal available in their area—no data connections, no 3G. Since its release, FrontlineSMS has been downloaded over 30,000 times, is in use in over 100 countries, and is being deployed in 20 different sectors of development.

In Aceh, Indonesia, the United Nations Development Programme and Mercy Corps deployed FrontlineSMS to send market prices and other agricultural data to smallholder rural coffee farmers. In Iraq, it’s being used by the country’s first independent news agency, Aswat al-Iraq, to disseminate news to bordering countries, and in Afghanistan it is helping to keep NGO fieldworkers safe through the distribution of security alerts. In Zimbabwe, the software has been used extensively by several human rights organizations, including Kubatana.net, and in Nigeria and the Philippines, it helped monitor national elections. In Malawi, a single instance of FrontlineSMS was used to help run a rural healthcare network for 250,000 people. It was used by bloggers in Pakistan during the short 2007 state of emergency to get news safely out of the country, and in the October 2008 Azerbaijani elections, it helped mobilize the youth vote.

FrontlineSMS is being used in Kenya to report breakages in fences caused by elephants, and it also ran the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW-SOS) emergency help line, allowing workers to receive immediate assistance in case of personal emergency. More recently, it’s been used by an arts collective in the United Kingdom to simulate a “peaceful revolution,” to assess the impact and effectiveness of flood response in Pakistan, to mobilize global communities around climate change legislation, to coordinate Kenyan election monitoring, and to help collect data on the availability and price of food in drought-stricken East Africa.

There are a number of reasons why FrontlineSMS has been so widely adopted, and why it’s become one of the most widely used and discussed tools in mobile. It’s no accident that its development was based on lengthy experience in the field, an anthropological approach to problem solving, and a set of values which sought to genuinely empower its users.

Ask users and you will soon realize that FrontlineSMS has become so much more than just a piece of software. Our core values are coded into how the software works, how it is deployed, the things it can do, how users connect, and the way it allows all this to happen. We worked hard to build a tool that anyone can take and apply, without us needing to get involved. How this is done is entirely up to the user, and it’s this flexibility that sits at the core of the platform. This personal nature of FrontlineSMS is also arguably at the heart of its success, as reported in a recent interview with the Africa Journal:

“FrontlineSMS provides the tools necessary for people to create their own projects that make a difference. It empowers innovators and organizers in the developing world to achieve their full potential through their own ingenuity.”

We trust and rely on our users to be imaginative and innovative with the platform. If they succeed, we succeed. If they fail, we fail. In other words, we are all very much in this together. We focus on the people and not the technology because people own the problems, and by default they are often the ones best placed to solve them. When you lead with people, technology is relegated to the position of being a tool.

Looking Ahead

After 10 years focusing on appropriate technology solutions, my belief is that users do not want access to tools–they want to be given the tools. There’s a subtle but significant difference. They want to have their own system, something which works with them to solve their problem. They want to see it and have it there with them, not in the “cloud.”

Mobile technology presents great opportunity for the development community, but we have still got some way to go if we are to fulfill that potential. The industry moves fast, presenting both opportunities and challenges. It’ll likely be another decade before mobile solutions are fully mainstreamed into development and not treated as a separate “add on.” Until then, it is sure to be great viewing.