Emerging Markets Communications Strategies

Analyzes the issues facing existing and new players who are looking for a share of growing mobile markets in over 30 developing countries, including the developing regions of Asia and Africa.

December 31, 2011 12:30 telliott

Few laws are more powerful than the law of unintended consequences. Change anything in a complex system – or even a relatively simple system – and something unexpected and possibly unwanted is almost bound to happen.

What could be better and more straightforward than giving solar chargers to village malaria workers in rural Cambodia? By keeping their phones charged they can send an SMS immediately on learning of a new case, rather than waiting a month or more for paper records to be collected centrally. This allows for the tracking of potential outbreaks in near real time, as well as better management of anti-malarial drug stocks.  

Prior to the solar chargers, the malaria workers, like the other villagers of Snay Anchit, got car batteries charged by the owner of a generator driven by an internal combustion engine, who was paid for the service. The car batteries charged phones and lit lamps in the village, which has no grid electricity.

The chargers, the result of a collaboration of the Cambodian government, the World Health Organization, and the Malaria Consortium .  are also sufficient to power a small lamp, bringing light to the malaria workers’ homes.

What’s not to like?

Substituting green energy for hydrocarbon-based power – not to mention forgoing lugging car batteries around – would seem like a great idea. Unless you’re the guy who owns the generator, who suddenly sees his income cut*. Thanks a lot, WHO. Or you’re a villager who isn’t a malaria worker – which is presumably most of them. You’ve got to keep on lugging your battery and paying to charge it while your neighbor enjoys a donated solar panel. And what happens when a malaria worker sets up as a competing charging station, selling excess capacity?

These are not necessarily reasons not to distribute solar chargers if it helps eradicate malaria. But they are reasons to consider carefully the ramifications of even the best sounding ideas.



* By how much is unclear. I have no hard data on what village phone chargers get for their services. One article on a solar program in Tanzania suggests a typical fee is about US$0.30 for a charge. Assuming $0.30 cents for one battery charge a week, which is probably conservative, the generator owner would lose $15 per year for every foregone customer. Cambodia’s per capita GDP is around $900, so this is non-trivial. More qualitatively, is it a great idea to undercut developing country entrepreneurs? 

For a view of some other NGO mobile activities in developing countries, see Second Screen Prospects in Developing Countries: The NGO Market


December 11, 2011 18:20 telliott

I was privileged to be speaking at a Mobile Payments conference last week – particularly privileged as it was in Miami, which was a good thirty degrees (F) warmer than home. The speaker before my panel was Marcelo Scaglia, from Banamex in Mexico City, who made one of the most sensible points I have heard recently in the mobile money space.

I’m paraphrasing here, but he observed that we often think there are two kinds of people in the world - “the  banked” and “the unbanked” – and that many feel that a long term goal of mobile payments schemes is to take the latter and turn them into the former. Actually, he says, it might be more useful to think of an area between the banked and the unbanked. In this space, consumers may use a range of financial services from banks or from others without necessarily having the kind of permanent and pervasive relationship that we usually associate with the “banked” condition.

There may be an evolutionary path from sending small remittances via mobile payments to having checking, savings, overdraft protection, a home equity line of credit, and an unending string of annoying ads for college loans and retirement planning services. This path may exist, but it is not likely to be heavily traveled.

More common, I think, would be a path where the previously un-banked in developing countries avail themselves of funds storage in the mobile payments system, perhaps get and pay off occasional micro-loans, receive payment electronically, and get some basic financial education, all without necessarily having what we in the industrialized middle class think of as “my bank.”


And it’s probably because I watch too much television, but does anyone else out there hear the phrase “unbanked” and think of “undead”? No? OK, sorry I mentioned it.