We’ve known for some time now that we can leverage technology to make a genuine difference to the everyday lives of families and entrepreneurs living in the developing world. Bill Gates is keen for this idea to gain momentum, and he’s been using his position as Guest Editor of The Verge this month to spread the word.
Mobile banking, says Gates, holds the key to giving people living in rural communities control over their finances. Currently it can be cost or time-prohibitive to make the journey to a bank in a nearby town, which is where digital banking solutions such as M-PESA come in. Out of the 2.5 billion people in the world with no access to banking, 1 billion do own a mobile phone: “The widespread adoption of mobile phones has enabled some of the poorest economies on earth to leapfrog ahead of developed nations when it comes to tech-driven financial solutions,” writes Ben Popper. This has led to M-PESA making a “positive impact on people’s financial health.”
The next challenge is transferring this success to other developing nations, and overthrowing historic banking attitudes in the process. “Part of it is that the fixed cost of ATM machines and bank tellers and all that means that small transactions are money-losing in the old system,” says Gates. “In the new digital realm, where we take and build a debit card equivalent that’s just your cell phone, there, on even 50 cent type transactions, you can have an under 2 per cent fee, and so it starts to be economic to bank the very poorest.”
Gates envisions this new banking ecosystem as an open platform for innovators, and predicts mass adoption in the developing world in the near future. “By 2030, mobile banking will be so freely available that an additional 2 billion people will use these services,” he says.
Gates believes that this same model can be adapted for education purposes, so that anybody with a mobile device will have the ability and opportunity to make their life better. He wants interactive, online classrooms to be available in a free form to anybody who has an internet connection.
That isn’t to say that wifi signal is the only obstacle to free and equal education. “Not everyone will be able to reap the benefit of this progress until we close the gender gap,” says Gates. “In Africa, women are 24 per cent less likely to own a cell phone. In Asia it’s 37 per cent. Education is a great leveller, but if the factors that hold girls back are not addressed, and if access to education is not equal, then it can become a cause for inequity, not a cure for it.”
The knock-on effect is staggering, he argues. If a woman gets a proper education, then she gets a better job, earns more money, and as a result, her children are statistically more likely to live long enough to receive an education themselves. And it all starts with a phone. “As technology drives down the cost of quality education, more people have access to the tools they need to take control of their future, anywhere in the world,” says Gates.
This week also marked the Indian launch of Internet.org, the joint venture of Facebook and Reliance Communications, which provides internet to phone owners who don’t have a data plan. While the initiative has the potential to hook up more than a billion new internet users, it currently only offers access to a handful of sites, and has been criticised for its uninspired interface design. But it remains an important first step, claim its creators.
“We still have a long way to go to connect India,” says Mark Zuckerberg. “But I’m optimistic that by getting free basic services into people’s hands, more change can follow pretty rapidly. One day, we will connect everyone, and the power of internet will serve every community across India and the world. That day is coming.”