Cell Phones for School Startups
Advancements in mobile technology in recent years have created unprecedented opportunities for grassroots programs in developing regions. Long battery life, large-range connectivity, lower prices, and an easier learning curve combine to make mobile phones a compelling alternative to traditional PCs. Integrating a variety of emerging systems, Openworld toolkits will offer innovative solutions for rural schools to harness leading-edge, cell phone-based technology.
Pioneering systems in Kenya, South Africa, and the Philippines have paved the way for “branchless” banking where customers can transfer and access funds entirely through the use of handsets. Companies such as the Philippines’ GCash
and Kenya’s M-Pesa
have made it possible for a vastly increasing proportion of the “unbankable” — the roughly 2 billion people with cell phones but no bank accounts — to gain access to formal monetary systems. Eliminating the risk of carrying cash, travelers can deposit money at one end of a journey and pick it up at the other, and micro-entrepreneurs such as taxi cab drivers and cyber café managers can conduct transactions without fear of theft.
Projected Mobile Users by 2010
Many South Africans now use prepaid mobile minutes to conduct daily purchases — trading phone time across accounts has created a new form of currency. Peer-to-peer transfers have resulted in another prominent benefit: the increase in remittance funds. In 2006, a World Bank report
(pdf) estimated that GCash facilitated over $50 million per month in remittances to the Philippines. With low transaction costs (an average of $.02 per transaction), mobile banking is quickly becoming a cheaper and more flexible alternative to debit cards or traditional wiring services. In 2007, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated $24 million
to CGAP’s mobile technology and microfinance initiative.
Developers of mobile technology continue to expand the capabilities of hand-held devices, and the microfinance sector is a primary target. A group from the University of Washington is currently field-testing its CAM
framework, which links a camera-enabled cell phone with and SMS gateway, a web application, and a few small paper forms to drastically increase the efficiency of tracking microloan accounts in rural areas. By taking photos of bar codes on the paper forms, loan officers can store payment reports in the phone’s outgoing mailbox to be sent when they return to an area within range of a cell tower, allowing for complete functionality in any area.
Schools in developing regions may see the greatest benefit from progress in mobile technology as learning tools and capabilities soar. Innovative programs like eCandle and Berkley’s MILLEE (Mobile and Immersive Learning for Literacy in Emerging Economies) are paving the way for a growing range of eLearning resources offered though handsets. Video clips will enable students in remote areas to report back to base schools, microprojectors will provide visual lesson demonstrations, and the improving price and bandwidth of wireless connections will even allow for interactivity in educational games and competitions across regions.