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Weaponising Technology to Battle Inequality

By Bob Collymore, CEO Safaricom
Jun 2018

Mohammad Somo is the head teacher of Duse Primary School, located in Isiolo County about 360 kilometers north of Nairobi.

Sometime last year, he failed to make it to an important meeting called to discuss education in his home county. It’s a county whose education challenges range from understaffing and poor learning facilities to migration of students, so there was a lot to be discussed.

But Mohammad only got to hear of the meeting a week after it had taken place, because it was communicated through the teachers’ WhatsApp group. It’s not that he didn’t know how to use the social network – he’s a relatively tech-savvy guy. He just happened to live and work in an area without mobile network connectivity.

While the rest of us can speak to the world with a quick swipe of our smartphones, Mohammad had to physically travel to whoever he wished to communicate with, whether his fellow teachers or employer, friends or family. This often required a trip to Kina town, some 18 kilometers away on a rough road.

The journey was not only uncomfortable, it cost him about KES 400 (equivalent to 4 USD) for a round trip on a hired motorbike each time. Considering that the monthly salary of a public primary school head teacher can be as low us KES 30,000 (about 300 USD), this is money that could be used on more pressing needs.

Like many other towns in Kenya’s arid and semi-arid north, Duse is sparsely populated, off the national power grid, and has a poverty prevalence index of 71 per cent: much higher than the national average. It’s not a location that attracts a lot of investment.

It’s a classic case study on the tragedy of new technology. The wealthy and those living in highly populated areas almost always enjoy its trappings before innovation can drive it to the rest of the population. Think about it: cars were not designed to cater to the needs of the economically disadvantaged, and two decades ago only those with lots of disposable income could afford mobile phones.

Things are slowly changing in the 21st century, but it sometimes seems as if the more they change the more they remain the same.

While today’s consumer can buy a simple feature phone for about 10 USD, the phone is pretty useless if the consumer is outside the network coverage area. We’ve democratized the mobile phone, but we’ve still got a long way to go before ensuring this phone can be used regardless of one’s geographical location.

For the most part, investment in network expansion has followed familiar trade routes: major highways connecting, you guessed it, big cities and towns. The unfortunate reality is that this model leaves behind populations living on the fringes, those living in far-flung, sparsely populated rural areas. From a business perspective, it makes sense; you invest where the money is.

But the proliferation of such an approach should be a blot on our collective conscience.

For us, that blot came in the form of Duse, and a teacher whose only mistake was working in an area with no network coverage.

So late last year – nearly two decades after the first cellphone towers went up in Nairobi – we did something to change Duse’s fortunes. In partnership with Huawei we installed our first RuralStar site, an innovative low-cost base station specifically designed to address telecommunications challenges in rural areas.

In doing so we not only connected the residents of Duse to a reliable mobile network, we also made another step towards achieving our goal of Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050 by using one of the most abundant resources in Kenya’s north to power the site: solar energy.

It’s an initiative with a noble cause: to cut the cost of rural connectivity and narrow the gap between need and access to mobile network connections. It’s about inclusion, reducing inequalities and transforming the lives of some of the world’s most disadvantaged communities through a most ubiquitous gadget: the mobile phone.

According to the 2017 Mobile Industry Impact Report: Sustainable Development Goals, the mobile industry is having a profound impact on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and on people like Mohammad.

The report states that mobile operators around the world are working to deploy mobile-enabled solutions that drive greater inclusion in cities and remote communities, enable access to essential services, create employment opportunities and empower people with the tools to reduce poverty and inequality.

Increased uptake of mobile money and financial services contribute to, among other things, decent work and economic growth, quality education, reduced inequalities and good health and well-being, for example by enabling people to send or receive money so they can build resilience and reduce vulnerability to health shocks.

A study conducted by MIT economist Tavneet Suri estimates that since 2008, access to mobile-money services such as M-PESA increased daily per capita consumption levels of 194,000, roughly two per cent, of Kenyan households and lifted them out of extreme poverty; defined as living on less than 1.25 USD per day.

This underscores the power of one aspect of mobile connectivity in economically transforming lives.

A True Value report on Safaricom, put together by KPMG, indicates that over the last 10 years the company has created value in excess of 20 billion USD and currently sustains over 845,000 jobs.

While Mohammad’s job is not directly linked to his ability to access a reliable mobile network, his ability to improve the quality of education available to his charges clearly is.

It seems like a small thing, being able to use Whatsapp, make or receive a phone call without traveling nearly 20 kilometres. But it’s bigger than that. It’s about using technology to reduce inequalities created by geographical boundaries, and that includes delivering a reliable service that is transforming lives by connecting people to people, people to knowledge, and people to opportunities.