New Internationalist books and publications

Computers and cellphones in the developing world

March 2013

Case study: Widening access to computer and mobile-phone technology in the developing world

The OLPC (One Lap Top Per Child) project and the use of mobile phones for a variety of tasks in developing countries is discussed in the Technology and Development chapter in the World Development book (p215). For obvious reasons, developments in technology have been so rapid that this is an area that needs to be constantly updated. This case study looks at progress that is being made in attempts to provide cheap computers to millions of students in India and South America and also more useful applications for the use of mobile phones in developing countries.

The number of people with access to mobile phones in developing countries surprises many in the developed world. According to the IAMAI (Internet and Mobile Association of India) there were 120 million people logging on to the internet each week in India at the start of 2012. That is nearly twice the total population of the UK - but it still represents only a small proportion (8.2%) of the 1.2 billion Indian population. The majority of internet users are male (83%) urban dwellers and only 24 million people living in rural areas have access to the internet. The Indian government has often stated its belief that increased internet access would bring huge educational and commercial benefits to the country and been involved in projects that attempted to provide cheap computers to poorer sections of the population.

Other countries in the developing world have similar aims. In 2007, the emphasis was on the widespread provision of laptop computers to the developing world. The OLPC project was backed by UNDP and supported by two non-profit US-based organizations. The first outcome of this project was the XO-1 or ‘Children’s Machine’. It was built by Quanta Computer, a Taiwanese company. The laptop was built as a rugged, hard-wearing and low-power computer. It used a flash drive instead of a hard drive and its wireless internet range was intended to exceed consumer laptop computers and it allowed students to collaborate on projects and share the same internet connection. Some governments invested heavily in the laptop project. Uruguay completed the distribution of XO-1s to each of the 362,000 students in the country in 2009 and Peru claimed to have distributed nearly a million by May 2010.

An evaluation of the success of the XO-1 project in Peru by the Inter-American Development Bank was released in October 2010. The findings were disappointing for people who believe that spending large amounts of money to provide thousands of students with access to computer technology will bring immediate educational benefits.

The key findings from the report were that:

  • the program dramatically increased access to computers
  • there was no evidence that the program increased learning in Maths or Language
  • there were some benefits to cognitive skills.

Although the report identified some hardware and software problems, which would be expected in a project as large as this, the major failure was the lack of preparation and training for teachers and instructors.

The teachers had no training and still today have no training. Although these units (as I understand) will network with each other, for the most part there is little infrastructure in place to connect to the outside world via internet. In most of the poorer areas of the country (mountain and jungle regions) these laptops amount to nothing more than: ‘wow that’s a cool gadget, what does it do?’ Forget about the part where children learn much from their natural curiosity and are able to figure things out on their own. It’s a great idea at the wrong time in the development of this country. Good intentions, bad timing. The government here certainly is not going to provide connectivity. In many of the schools we work with, books aren’t provided! The children are required to buy workbooks from the school (a copy of a real book) at a cost of between $7 and $10. That equates to a day’s wages for the father. We learned early on that our efforts to provide some ‘basic teaching materials’ to the teachers were not enough. We had to teach the teachers HOW to use those simple materials.
H Mac Wooten – Teach A Teacher, 5 April 2012

Eugenie Severin (a researcher from the Inter-American Development Bank) suggested there were five possible explanations for the apparent failure of the OLPC project in Peru:

  1. The use of technology in education in general makes no difference
  2. It’s too early to tell (the time horizon is too short)
  3. The evaluators tested the wrong things and/or used the wrong methods
  4. The idea was good, but the particular implementation was bad
  5. Change does not come unless you make real changes (and often, no real, fundamental changes are made except for the addition of technology). 

Other countries in the Middle East and Africa are involved with the OLPC programme and it will be interesting to see if lessons can be learned from the Peru project.

India rejected the OLPC initiative when it was first proposed in 2006, claiming that ‘it would be impossible to justify an expenditure of this scale on a debatable scheme’. Instead the Indian government pursued its own scheme to provide computer access by building a cheaper computer than the XO-1. The original plans envisaged the production of $10 lap tops but this cost gradually increased and, in October 2011, the Aakash tablet was being sold for $44 by an Indian company, DataWind.

University students with Aakash tablets

The first version of the Aakash was marred by problems including a short battery life, long waiting lists and difficulties with distribution and a second improved version was launched in November 2012. The new computer had a faster processor, longer battery life and a bigger touch screen. A big reduction in component costs helped to improve the processing capacity of the computer and reduce its cost. In 2010 a gigahertz processor cost $18 to $20. In 2012 it was $4. The first 100,000 computers produced were sold to students at engineering colleges and universities at a subsidized price of 1,130 rupees ($20). DataWind says that the price without subsidies is 3,500 rupees ($64). According to India’s human resource development ministry, over 15,000 teachers at 2,500 colleges have been trained on the use of Aakash for education. The Indian government’s target is to supply all of the country’s 220 million students with a computer in the next seven years.

The OLPC project in Peru suggests that full use of the computer’s potential when its availability is widespread requires careful preparation and programs are being implemented to help make this happen in India. Textbooks are being converted to e-books to save local governments printing and annual revision costs and help to overcome the shortage of teachers, particularly in rural areas. Educational videos are being developed which will eventually be available in 32 Indian languages. The computer can also be used to carry out simple diagnostic cardiac checks and enable routine health checks in rural areas. The potential uses of the computer are still being researched and implemented but its impacts could be huge.

Criticism of the Indian government’s policy for increased computer access is widespread. The most basic criticism is that the large amounts of money invested in developing the technology, manufacturing the computers and subsidizing their cost could have been used more effectively in helping the country with urgent problems. Clean water provision, improved healthcare and improved infrastructure all require greater investment. Some have pointed out that the provision of libraries would be a more cost-effective way of improving access to education. Others have criticized the method of implementation of the policy and described it as ‘imperialistic’. The manufacturer has always stated the intention to make the computer in India and there was a lot of adverse comment generated by DataWind’s acknowledgement that early models of the computer used many components manufactured in China. They claim that they now have the capacity to manufacture the computer in India but this claim has been contested by some people.

Evaluation of the Aakash project will not take too long. The first measure will be whether the very large numbers of tablets needed (220 million in seven years) can be supplied by the manufacturers. Its distribution on anything like that scale would indicate its technical success because it will need to be seen to be working well to generate and sustain such a high demand. The durability of the computers and compatibility with software developments will be another test but most important will be the scale of its use in education and its contribution to national educational progress.

How useful are mobile phones in aiding development?

‘The mobile phone will drive internet use in India. Computing begins with the mobile and its growth is fast in India.’
Ankur Agarwal editor of Indian gadget blog onlygizmo.com.

It is difficult to argue with the statement that the mobile phone has made a bigger difference to our lives than any other invention in the last 30 years. It has gone from being a status symbol used by a few, to a technology that facilitates almost every interaction in our lives. The world’s population reached 7 billion in October 2011 and one month after that the number of mobile phone cards in global use reached 6 billion (Groupe Speciale Mobile Association – GSMA). Applications for mobile phones have also increased to such an extent that its current potential uses could hardly have been anticipated even a few years ago. The impacts of this unique rate of growth are enormous.

A study by GSMA in 2009 found a correlation between increased availability and use of mobile phones and higher GDP in India, with every 10% increase in mobile penetration leading to a 1.2% increase in GDP. According to research compiled by wearesocial.net there are more than 898 million mobile subscribers in India (2012) and 292 million of those live in rural areas. The same research showed that 346 million Indian mobile users subscribed to data packages, with 59% of all internet users in the country accessing the web through their mobile phones. The 25% increase in internet usage during 2011-2012 was largely because of mobile phone subscribers. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India estimates that there will be an additional 200 million new mobile subscribers by the end of 2013.

One economic impact of the increase in mobile phone use is the growth of ‘m-commerce’. Some 13 billion adverts are already sent to mobile devices in India every month, providing income for marketing organizations and two-thirds of all Indian e-commerce comes from mobile phones. This is expected to increase as more non-English websites appear in the near future and improve web access for speakers of the hundreds of languages spoken in India. The internet is a global network but the biggest benefits will almost certainly come from the localization of content. Currently the most popular uses of mobile phones in India are for social networking (Facebook is the most popular website) and watching videos.

The increasing use of mobile phones may provide an economic stimulus to the Indian economy and the manufacture of mobile phones in the country also provides another boost. Local manufacturers like Micromax and Karbonn have greatly increased production and the Indian government has encouraged the development of technology needed for the production of a new generation of mobile phones that they plan to sell below 5,000 rupees ($94).

There are technical issues that need to be resolved to maximize the potential of mobile-phone technology in India. Improving connectivity in remote areas and reducing cost are the most obvious. Erica Kochi, the co-lead of Tech Innovation at UNICEF, has listed her key criteria (see box).

A Phone for the Developing World

iPhones don’t stand a chance due to their inflexibility and high price points. As it stands, the operating system for the developing world smartphone will be Android. However, even the flagship Samsung Galaxy Nexus isn’t the ideal phone. The ideal smartphone will be:
1. Cheap. Last year, Huawei in partnership with Safaricom unveiled an $80 Android phone in Kenya, where 40% of the population lives on less than $2 a day. At this year’s Mobile World Congress the CEOs of Bharti Airtel, Telefonica Latin America and VimpelCom came out together and stated that $50 is the magic price point for smartphones to become more widely affordable in emerging economies.
2. Rugged and simple. The Nokia 1100 series is the most popular phone in the world. It is dust proof, water resistant, rugged, has a simple menu system, few separate parts and has a flashlight. Every town across the developing world has a local repair shop with spare parts for simple Nokias. When I travel to the developing world, I rely on my trusty Nokia 1100, not my iPhone. Smartphones are delicate creatures that don’t stand up to the daily wear and tear of people’s lives.
3. Battery life of a week. Recharging your phone every night is not an option if you live in a rural village without electricity. At one of UNICEF’s projects in rural Senegal, I encountered a village entrepreneur who started a business where he would collect everyone’s cellphones and, for a small fee, bike to an electrified village a few hours away, then bike back with phones at full charge.People in these countries spend a lot of money to keep their phones charged. Developing a phone whose battery lasts for a week would unlock smartphones to a large market segment.
4. Apps Optimized for Data Use
Data is as expensive in developing as in developed countries. Data is unlikely to fall in price as quickly as smartphones, so even when handsets get cheap enough for an average user in a developing country, they still won’t be able to afford run many of the apps that make up the smartphone experience. There will be demand for apps – be it banking, weather, chat, social, and market information – but for them to take off it’s crucial that they use as little bandwidth as possible. One feature to emulate is Android’s Data Usage screen which allows you to set limits for data usage and makes it clear how much data you’ve used.
Erica Kochi, Tech Crunch, 27 May 2012

Examples of the use of mobile phone technology in developing countries

Project Mwana, southern Zambia
Mobile-phone technology is being used in Project Mwana in southern Zambia to improve testing of infants for HIV. One of the barriers to efficient testing has been the transmitting of the test results from a regional laboratory to the point-of-care clinic. The distances may vary from 10km to 600km and delays and lost results are frequent, preventing the start of treatment. Mobile phones are being used to send the results directly to the point-of-care clinic using an automated SMS message system that ensures accuracy and confidentiality.

DBS – Dry blood sample
Mobile-phone-based system for infant HIV test result notification, Zambia, 2008-11

Nano Ganesh – mobile technology to make irrigation more effective in India
Mobile-phone technology has also been adapted to assist agriculture. The efficient use of water is critical to successful farming in many developing countries. In this case study from India, it has been used to make irrigation more effective and efficient and to save the farmer time.

A new innovation from the India-based company Ossian Agro Automation, called Nano Ganesh, seeks to transform the way farmers manage their water systems by giving them the freedom to turn pumps on and off, from any location, with their mobile phone. Santosh Ostwal, co-founder of Nano Ganesh, created mobile-based technology that gives farmers the flexibility to remotely switch water pumps on and off from any distance using cellphones or landlines. Ostwal, an electrical engineer by trade, had a personal connection to the plight of farmers. After observing the hardships his 82-year-old grandfather faced in tending his farm and monitoring the availability of electricity to operate water pumps, he began to construct a remote control that farmers could use within 2 kilometres (1.2 miles) of the farm. He later modified the remote control by expanding its range to 10 kilometres (6.2 miles). In 2008, Ostwal altered the technology so that it could function over an unlimited range, granting farmers the flexibility to start and stop the flow of water from anywhere there is a mobile connection. Nano Ganesh also allows farmers to check the availability of electricity to the pump and verify the on and off status of its operation. Both of these features offer cost-saving benefits to farmers who otherwise may not be able to shut their pumps off before their fields have become overly saturated.
Sarah Alvarez, Christian Science Monitor, 17 September 2012

Helping government and aid agencies to work more effectively.
Using SMS to gather feedback from citizens in Uganda
SMS technology has been used to gather information that helps aid agencies to evaluate and plan their work in developing countries. It can also provide locating information that can make the information provided in responses even more useful. The technique is being used in Uganda.

uReport: Citizen Feedback via SMS in Uganda

For aid organizations, knowing what local communities and beneficiaries want and need is the key to running successful, sustainable programs. In Uganda, UNICEF is using mobile phones and broadcast media to get direct feedback from Ugandans on everything from medication access to water sanitation. The project, called uReport, allows users to sign up via a toll-free shortcode for regular SMS-based polls and messages. Citizen responses are used both in weekly radio talk shows to create discussion on community issues, and shared among UNICEF and other aid organizations to provide a better picture of how services work across Uganda.

Sean Blaschke, a Technology for Development specialist at UNICEF Uganda, explains that uReport gathers information from participants and informs citizens of their rights and available services. Recent polls have included questions about school dropouts, water-point availability, mosquito-net usage, and youth employment, all collected via SMS polls.

Posted by Anneryan Heatwole on 28 August 2011

Using mobile phones to help those without bank accounts to transfer money

In 2007, innovative phone technology was introduced into Kenya that has transformed the lives of millions of people and businesses. The technology allows those people without a bank account to transfer money very quickly using a mobile phone. The first of these systems was called M-Pesa – the M standing for mobile and Pesa being the Swahili for money. The system is a joint venture between Vodafone and the Kenyan company Safaricom. The system has been so successful that over 50% of the population use it for transactions ranging from sending money to relatives who may live miles away, to paying for shopping or utilities. To use the service involves registering at an M-Pesa outlet, which is usually a chemist, petrol station or shop and then putting money on the mobile phone. The money can be transferred to the third party by text who can take the text to another outlet and receive the cash. The technology has made a major difference to the way that many businesses operate.

John Makusi Simiyu's Nairobi shop is the same bright green as the product it sells. His staff at this M-Pesa outlet are busy helping customers send and receive money. The businessman also owns a transport and real estate company. M-Pesa has fundamentally changed the way it works. He pays his crews, and transfers money to customers using the service. When one of his lorries breaks down, he no longer needs to go to the bank, and then travel miles by bus to reach the stricken vehicle. ‘Today I don't need to do that. Just call me, tell me your problem and how much you need and I will text it through M-Pesa system… I don’t need to go the bank when I have the bank in my phone.’ One of the other great benefits is increased security. Mr Makusi says he no longer has to worry about being mugged while carrying cash.
Fiona Graham, BBC Business News, 22 November 2010

Similar technology for the transfer of funds using mobiles is now used in other developing countries, as with Rohsan in Afghanistan.

Changes in technology and the application of computer and mobile-phone technology are so rapid that textbooks are inevitability out of date almost before they are printed. You have to keep a close eye on the news and internet to see what is happening.

Websites and news articles that may be of interest:

Article from the Economic Times giving more technical details of the Aakash tablet
articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2013-01-01/news/36094253_1_aakash-tablet-aakash-project-datawind

Wikipedia article on the Aakash tablet
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aakash_%28tablet%29

Telegraph article on the use of Chinese components, March 2013
telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/india/9703316/Indias-Aakash-tablet-computer-partly-made-in-China.html

Detailed New York Times article about the Aakash, December 2012
nytimes.com/2012/12/30/technology/indias-aakash-venture-produces-optimism-but-few-computers.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2

BBC Business News item about increasing internet use in India
bbc.co.uk/news/business-16354076

Useful article from the Mashable website discussing the value of the internet to developing countries
mashable.com/2011/02/04/web-developing-world/

Useful statistics about internet use in India
deccanherald.com/blog/?p=298

BBC News item about the use of M-Pesa in Kenya
bbc.co.uk/news/business-11793290

Article in The Guardian about the mobile phone and e-learning, May 2012
guardian.co.uk/global-development/2012/may/30/mobile-phone-developing-world-elearning

Interesting article from the New York Times about the use of mobile phones, May 2008
nytimes.com/2008/04/13/magazine/13anthropology-t.html?pagewanted=all

Article from The Guardian about uses of mobile phones in Uganda
guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/jul/24/mobile-phones-africa-microfinance-farming

This feature was published in the March 2013 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

Comments on Computers and cellphones in the developing world

Leave your comment