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Rural development with mobiles: impact for individuals

Michael Riggs's picture

Farmers in Rwanda have asked me how they can access more complex agricultural information on their mobiles, said Paul Barera, Exec. Director, RTN. Now if that is not a reason for excitement and a call to put our collective minds together, what is? The statement above was made during a panel discussion on "The Role of Mobile Phones for Rural Economic Development" at the conference on "ICT for Rural Economic Development". Five experts, with extensive field experience in using mobile telephony for development lead this dynamic discussion. Without a doubt, mobile technology is one of the most exciting advances in the development field. Its rapid uptake in poor and rural communities - at the level of the individual - is unprecedented in development. Better yet, there is evidence of the positive impact mobile telephony has in facilitating timely access to information in rural areas, particularly around market data and financial services. Yet we still face many challenges in finding verifiable, replicable, positive impacts on rural livelihoods. It was suggested in several ways that bringing ICTs and development planning closer together, with information innovations coming directly from the rural communities themselves is still needed. There are important design considerations around meeting the demands of the poorest of the poor. Pricing is critical to a sustainable business model at this community level. Related to this, public-private partnerships were recognized as critical, but it was noted that these do not always have to be with large corporate firms, rather in some cases with small, local private companies. More consideration needs to be given to opportunities for this. The panel agreed that more than other development opportunities, mobile telephony seems to require multi-stakeholder partnerships in order to reach the full potential of its benefit. Appropriate information resources (content) and capacity development are necessary factors for success, sometimes not give sufficient placement in a development plan. Models of capacity development need to be based on social characteristics as well as information needs and technology function. Proper design and implementation can reduce the potential for information inequity that can be created when introducing new ICTs into a community. Fascinating to me were a series of comments about the importance of ICT awareness at the individual level, and how promoting awareness to this degree remains a challenge. Reuters Market Light, for example, has a customer base of 500,000 subscribers in India - accomplished by explaining the value of this service to each and every new subscriber individually. When considering scale up, how often do those of us in development organizations program for direct communication with a half a million individuals?! Finally, no matter how good this technology is, we must keep in mind that only 50% of rural populations are currently covered by a mobile signal. A strategic, sustainable ICT4D project needs to consider all the technology options available. For more about the use of mobile technology in rural development, I encourage you to also see Roxanna Samii's presentation "Development 2.0: Putting ICT4D Lessons into Action to Make M-Development a Reality" and Jenny Aker's presentation "ICT4D – Hope or Hype? Figuring out what works in ICT4D projects" from this conference. (This blog was originally published on the GTZ ICT4D blog: http://ict.ez-blogs.de/rural-development-with-mobiles-impact-for-individuals/ )