Wednesday, December 23, 2009

ConfPaper > Mobile-Based Livelihood Services In Africa: Pilots And Early Deployments

Jonathan Donner / Technology for Emerging Markets Group / Microsoft Research India / At / Conference on Development And Information Technologies. Mobile Phones An Internet In Latin America And Africa: What Benefits For The Most Disadvantaged? / October 23-24 2009 / Castelldefels / Barcelona / 19 pp.


The paper describes a collection of initiatives delivering support via mobile phones to small enterprises, small farms, and the self-employed. Using a review of 26 examples of such services currently operational in Africa, the analysis identifies five functions of mobile livelihood services: Mediated Agricultural Extension, Market Information, Virtual Marketplaces, Financial Services, and Direct Livelihood Support. It discusses the current reliance of such systems on the SMS channel, and considers their role in supporting vs. transforming existing market structures.


This brief paper does not present an evaluation of the effectiveness of any particular service, nor does it venture an assessment of the suitability or potential effectiveness of different kinds of services. Instead it provides an overview of the range of services currently available, and, more importantly; it identifies what kinds of changes (to the enterprise or to its environment) the designers of the services intend to bring about. The task of making these intended changes explicit serves as a bridge to considering these services in light of our interdisciplinary understanding of the role of mobile communication (and ICTs) in society and in economic development. In particular, by taking an aggregate view encompassing a couple dozen services we can better consider how these livelihood services both reflect and reinforce the logic of an informational society (Castells, 1996; Castells, Fernández-Ardèvol, Qiu, & Sey, 2007).

Researchers have documented the rapid uptake and use of mobile telephones by both farmers and by micro and small enterprises (MSEs) across Africa. Mobiles offer both groups opportunities to deepen interactions with existing customers, replace travel, and participate in broader and more efficient markets (Aker, 2008; Jagun, Heeks, & Whalley, 2008; Molony, 2006; Muto & Yamano, 2008; Overå, 2006; Samuel, Shah, & Hadingham, 2005). Landlines have offered many of the same benefits for decades (Saunders, Warford, & Wellenieus, 1994), but in many cases have been unaffordable or simply unavailable to the smallest businesses and farmers.

Recently, a small number of ventures (some by private companies, others by governments, or NGOs) have begun to explore what mobiles can do for farmers and MSEs, beyond voice calling and person-to-person SMS. These mobile-based ―livelihood services‖ offer platforms for information sharing, coordination, marketing, and even financial transactions. With a few notable exceptions, livelihood services are not yet runaway successes–indeed many are pilot programs or niche services. However, there is sufficient diversity to provide some indications as to what the next wave of mobile-based livelihood services might look like.


Other Sections > / Methods / Market Information / Virtual Marketplaces /  Comprehensive And/Or Flexible Platforms / Financial Services / Direct Livelihood Support

  • The landscape
  • Livelihood services, development, and the informational society

The two dozen mobile livelihood services profiled in the review are not reflective of a single integrated trend. They are instead a confluence of different technical and organizational models (Donner, Verclas, & Toyama, 2008), reflecting donor priorities, local-NGO innovations, government mandates, and some market opportunities.

Although this review has stressed the mobile channel, it is important to recall that in almost every case, the ―service‖ does not run on the handset on its own. Rather, there is a PC, a server, or a whole organizational ecosystem behind whatever the user sees on his or her small mobile screen. More often than not (the ―not‖ being some implementations of Frontline SMS), the systems are deployed and maintained by large institutions in central, influential locations in the continents‘ formal agricultural and non-agricultural economies. In fact, this increased institutional involvement may be one of the greater current impacts of these livelihood systems.

An array of such institutions can draw into closer contact with the smallest farm and nonfarm enterprises—entities which have often been at the margins of the formal economy. That these institutions can help in help more farms and small enterprises become more productive by lowering the cost of searching for information, adding new skills, or advertising to customers, is good for the families which depend on the enterprises for their livelihoods. However, we should be wary of heralding the arrival of a new paradigm of economic organization until we see more evidence of thriving mediated marketplaces replacing, rather than simply accelerating, current market structures.


Appendex > Mobile-based livelihood services in Africa

Note > This is a draft of the paper prepared on 2 December 2009 – additional changes possible before the final version is released as part of an edited proceedings. Please refer to the conference website ot contact the author before quoting this version.

Source and Full Text Available At


!!! Thanks To / Jonathan Donner / For The HeadsUp !!!

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