Africa's SMS Crisis- And How To Stop It

An article I wrote this summer appears today on Venture Beat:

It would be easy to conclude that Africa is entering the golden age of mobile innovation. In Kenya, mPesa, a Safaricom service, allows users to send money anywhere in the country via mobile phone at very low rates. Next door in Uganda, rural users out of reach of the Internet can use a new SMS-based service from MTN, Grameen Foundation and Google to trade goods, search the Internet and query local reproductive health and agriculture information.

These services, however, represent a trickle of innovation where there should be a downpour. The source of this sluggishness is the structure of African mobile phone networks, which discourage entrepreneurs from quickly and cheaply creating, testing and deploying applications.

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From the Fisherman to the Cloud

I just moved to a fourth floor walk up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and started a job with the UNICEF Innovations group. The group aims to leverage affordable hardware and open source software to both improve UNICEF's operations (they purchase over 1/2 of the world's vaccines) and empower young people. For me, this is a fantastic opportunity to explore both big intellectual questions (To what extent can large institutions learn from the African Digerati?) as well as fun practical questions (What is the best way to ensure that youth in Africa can participate in UNICEF campaigns with only Nokia 1100 phones).

Also, I have the pleasure of helping to moderate a HUGE event on Wednesday at the Berkman Center. Yochai Benkler, Amartya Sen, amongst others, are participating in Communication and Human Development: The Freedom Connection?, a discussion on the future of the overlap between digital technology and economic and social growth in the developing world.

Amongst the great essays written for the Public Project in anticipation for this event, Benkler, with his usual alactrity, gets to the bottom of things:

If the first generation of benefits of ICTs for development was captured by the image of fishermen calling different ports and negotiating the price of fish before they pulled in to port, so as to capture greater returns for their families, the next generation has to be similar deployment of the much more flexible and dynamic affordances of more powerful computational devices, cloud applications, and social software or organizational tools.
Benkler recognizes this is not easy in the developing world setting, and goes on to present a clear dichotomy for action: either force the mobile networks to be more open, or figure out how to make more sophisticated technology more widely useful and available.

As the community focused on the use of digital technology in the developing world continues to focus on SMS as the killer-app, Benkler's view that SMS won't bring the advantages of the information economy to the poor is important to consider. I'm looking forward to a path-breaking conversation on Wednesday.

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