COLLYMORE: Weaponising technology to battle inequality - Daily Nation

Weaponising technology to battle inequality

Sunday June 3 2018

A man climbs a tree in Basuba, Lamu County as he searches for mobile phone network.

A man climbs a tree in Basuba, Lamu County as he searches for mobile phone network. PHOTO | FILE 

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

Some time 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 Somo 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 relatively tech-savvy.

While the rest of us can speak to the world with a quick swipe of our smartphones, Somo 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 18km away on a rough road. 

GEOGRAPHICAL LOCATION

The journey was not only uncomfortable, it cost him about Sh400 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 as Sh30,000, this is money that could have been 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.

While today’s consumer can buy a simple feature phone for about Sh1,000, the phone is pretty useless if the consumer is outside the network coverage area.

We’ve democratised 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 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. 

LOW-COST BASE

So late last year, 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.

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 Somo.

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.

EXTREME POVERTY

A study 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 a 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 (Sh2 trillion) and currently sustains over 845,000 jobs.

While Somo’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 travelling nearly 20km. 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.

The writer is Safaricom CEO