Phones to make the poor upwardly mobile

May 7, 2008

The “Business Call to Action,” hosted by the British prime minister, drew some 80 CEOs of the world’s biggest companies including Microsoft, Coca-Cola and Vodafone as well as top politicians to discuss how big business can stamp out global poverty.

The lure? Big profits. Ghana’s President John Kufuor said it will be easier for U.S. and European businesses to make their next million in Africa rather than anywhere else. The credit crunch has made a few more believe this might be true.

“Three billion of the world’s 6 billion people have mobile phones,” Vodafone CEO Arun Sarin said. “And three-quarters of the new customers are in the developing world. This is a huge opportunity.”

Two companies laid out how they were using technology to tackle issues unique to developing nations in a race to win market share. British telecom company Vodafone has made some headway, while Telefonica O2 is launching new products to allow migrant workers to send money home using their mobiles.

Vodafone CEO Sarin:

  • Vodafone already has 2 million Kenyan and Tanzanian customers, out of 10 million in total, signed up to M-PESA, which allows customers to send much-needed money to loved ones using their mobile phones.
  • The company operates in Afghanistan. To get around the problem of illiteracy, the firm has developed voice recognition software. Luckily you don’t have to shout out your bank details or the amount you’re sending – you give voice instructions and plug in the numbers.

O2 CEO Matthew Key:

  • Telefonica has plans to for a similar service in Latin America, where many leave for the United States and send part of their wages home.
  • Telefonica wants 200 million people to sign up for “a new suite of banking products,” Key said.
  • The company estimates there are 650 million money transfers back to Latin America each year, and its mobile phone products will slash the average $10 cost per transfer.

–Reporting by Chris Wills in London

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