The next billion users of the net, many of whom will reside in regions of the developing world, represent an incredible business opportunity for a public-private partnership. This can become a market-driven ecosystem where all parties prosper. There is a fortune to be found at the “base of the pyramid.”
One area ripe for targeting is the need for content, specifically localized content, such as “what will the weather be like, next week where I live?” or “what is the market price for my crops?” Local, or should I say relevant, content like this is still king. Yes, I still want to know what’s happening in the rest of the world, but more important is what’s affecting my life here and now.
Of course, mobile phones are not the ideal platform to compose and create this content, we typically reach for a PC to do this. The challenge is that in most parts of these developing countries, there are few PCs, no software, and no reliable resources to power these devices.
Enter Telecenters, community-based centers located in small villages across India, Africa, or other developing economies where access to technology can be efficiently delivered through a kind of PC-kiosk. In India, where there are as many as 600,000 • 800,000 people living in villages, it is not practical to give everyone their own PC. A Telecenter seems to strike the right balance between need, access, and expense, costing as little as US$50,000 to operate on an annual basis.
There are now over 100,000 Telecenters around the world, but “no coherence among them.” The hope is that through efforts to disseminate best practices, they can be replicated around the world with better consistency and greater reach to those in need. A great story sums-up the value of these communities: in Baramati, a large village in rural Southern India, students look forward to “Tuesdays,” the day the computer bus comes to the school. The goal of the Telecenter is to make every day a Tuesday.
Perhaps the biggest challenge identified is the need for sustainability,often described as “The Social Innovator’s Dilemma,” a play on Clay Christensen’s groundbreaking theory about the challenge of managing disruptive innovation. The challenge here is how to sustain all of this great technology (and human capital) being invested into remote villages and communities. It’s one thing to build Telecenters, but something else altogether to maintain them. This commitment will be largely wasted if we fail to build true ecosystems around the Telecenters, literally integrating the supply chain, spreading the operating risk across the stakeholders, thus ensuring the ongoing health of the social enterprise.
Companies such as SySDSoft, an Egypt-based telecommunication company specializing in wireless system designs is making the vision of sustainability a reality in the developing markets. Wireless connectivity is often described as the “lifeblood” of developing countries, and technologies such as SySDSoft’s is playing key role in the development of affordable communications infrastructure like WiMax and WiMax Wireless. For countries with minimal wired infrastructure, WiMAX can enhance wireless infrastructure in a cost-effective, deployment-friendly manner. A little support from the government also goes a long way, with Khaled Ismail, the President and Founder of SySDSoft, also Senior Advisor, Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, Egypt, who is actively helping the company accomplish its goals. This has helped SySDSoft reach a growing customer base across the globe including US, Europe and Asia.
Also, BoliviaMall.com, founded in 1999 by a group of local Bolivia entrepreneurs, has been fueled by significant investments and improvements. As a rare technology-based business in a developing economy, BoliviaMall.com has been able to take advantage of the Internet to open global markets for more than 5000 Bolivian products, while also serving those same local markets that enabled their start 8 years ago. These markets would otherwise be unreachable to most of the 150 artisans and small firms that manufacture BoliviaMall.com’s products, which in turn employ more than 750 workers. What sets BoliviaMall.com apart, though, is their practical, innovative and sustainable approach to benefit society in general, with an emphasis on those who are marginalized. BoliviaMall.com has customers in more than sixty other countries around the world, and has been profitable for several years.
One thought that best sums up this ongoing discussion is that we must think of providing technology to narrow this digital divide as true social entrepreneurship and not charity or gifts. Money and resources are surely wasted if those on the receiving end do not end up feeling accountable for the investments being made on their behalf.
There is a growing need to focus on how to build a sustainable and profitable business around providing technology that enables the next billion people in the developing world to access localized, relevant content that will not only make a difference in their daily lives, but may help create the next great innovation.