Bill Gates on Mpesa – Via Live Mint

4 01 2013

When people are empowered, they
will use digital technology to
innovate on their own behalf

It will take a decade to get
certain applications into a lot of
places, but the momentum will
build and we will learn as we go.

Usually, “optimism” and “realism”
are used to describe two different
outlooks on life. But I believe that
a realistic appraisal of the human
condition compels an optimistic
worldview. I am particularly
optimistic about the potential for
technological innovation to
improve the lives of the poorest
people in the world. That is why I
do the work that I do.
Even so, there is one area of
technology and global
development where reality has
tempered my optimism: the idea
that cellphones would
revolutionize life in developing
countries. A decade ago, many
people believed that the
proliferation of mobile devices in
Africa would mean a short leap to
digital empowerment.
It didn’t.
Digital empowerment is a long and
ongoing process, and the mere
existence of cellular technology
does not immediately change how
poor people meet their basic
needs.
But now, after years of
investments, digital empowerment
is under way, owing to a
confluence of factors, including
growing network coverage, more
capable devices, and an expanding
catalogue of applications. As more
people obtain access to better and
cheaper digital technology, an
inflection point is eventually
reached, at which the benefits of
providing digitally services like
banking and health care clearly
outweigh the costs. Companies are
then willing to make the
investments required to build new
systems, and customers are able
to accept the transition costs of
adopting new behaviours.
Consider the example of M-Pesa,
Kenya’s mobile-banking service
that allows people to send money
via their cellphones. M-Pesa first
needed to invest in many brick-
and-mortar stores where
subscribers could convert the cash
they earn into digital money (and
back into cash). This real-world
infrastructure will be necessary
until economies become
completely cashless, which will
take decades.
Without omnipresent cash points,
M-Pesa would be no more
convenient than traditional ways
of moving money around. At the
same time, it was impossible to
persuade retail stores to sign on as
cash points unless there were
enough M-Pesa subscribers to
make it profitable for them.
This kind of boot-strapping is
exactly what we had to do at
Microsoft Corp. in the early years
of the personal computer. No one
wanted a machine unless there was
software, and no one would create
software unless there were
machines. Microsoft convinced
both hardware and software
companies to bet on future
volume by showing how our
platform would change the rules.
There have been many successful
small-scale pilot programmes
using cellphones. But examples of
large-scale, self-sustaining
programmes powered by digital
technology, like M-Pesa, are
harder to find, because the key
pieces have not been put into
place to enable the required work
to advance beyond the limits of
controlled experiments.
Digitally-enabled health care, or
mHealth, is one area that has been
slow to emerge, because it is
difficult to build a great platform
and then convince everybody in a
health system that it is worth
using.
If some health workers use
cellphones to send information to
a central database, but others do
not see the value, the digital
system is incomplete—and thus
just as flawed as the current paper
system.
The most promising mHealth
project that I have seen, called
Motech, focuses on maternal and
child health in Ghana. Community
health workers with phones visit
villages and submit digital forms
with vital information about newly
pregnant women. The system then
sends health messages to the
expectant mothers, such as weekly
reminders about good pre-natal
care.
The system also sends data to the
health ministry, giving
policymakers an accurate and
detailed picture of health
conditions in the country.
Those working on AIDS,
tuberculosis, malaria, family
planning, nutrition, and other
global health issues can use the
same platform, so that all parts of
a country’s health system are
sharing information and
responding appropriately in real-
time. This is the dream, but it
works only if frontline workers are
inputting data, health ministries
are acting on it, and patients are
using the information that they
receive on their phones.
I realized that things were taking
off when our partners on Motech
started talking about burdensome
network costs and simplifying the
user interface. The application was
really being used in the field, and
the stickiest challenges were
presenting themselves—which
meant that the system had proved
that it was valuable enough for
people to put in the work to solve
problems as they arose, instead of
just reverting to the old system.
This digital approach is now being
extended to other regions,
including northern India.
A decade ago, people said that this
would happen quickly. It didn’t,
because the pieces just were not
there. Now they are starting to
come into place.
It will take a decade to get certain
applications into a lot of places,
but the momentum will build and
we will learn as we go. In the long
run, the results will be just as
transformative as we hoped, if not
more so. Ultimately, when people
are truly empowered, they will
begin to use digital technology to
innovate on their own behalf,
building solutions that the
established software-development
community never considered.

©2012/Project Syndicate
Bill Gates is co-chair of the Bill
and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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