When I first heard of it a few months ago, I knew instinctively that Ushahidi had the potential to create long-lasting change in the developing world. Having worked in a few underprivileged communities in India as soon as I finished university, I know how widespread the use of mobile phones is. The internet, by contrast, is still largely accessed largely via internet cafes by most of the middle and lower-middle class even today, and that too only where absolutely required. To the poor, the internet has hardly any relevance in terms of daily usage. Initiatives like ITC’s eChoupal, which aims to train farmers to use the internet to improve their livelihoods by giving them access to information such as weather and market prices, scientific farm practices and risk management are excellent but largely a rural phenomenon and restricted to areas where ITC (a company that has businesses ranging from hotels and apparel to food and IT) operates.
The mobile phone, on the other hand, is an instrument that many poor households own.
So when I read a blog post by Patrick Philippe Meier, a research fellow at Harvard and a doctoral candidate at Tufts University, about the potential use of Ushahidi for mobile banking (or mBanking), I immediately wanted to know more. Meier says that mBanking is used by a vast majority of the poor (from an older post of his: “of the 140 million poor people employed who receive social payments (aka G2P), less than 1/4th receive their payments via bank accounts”), but there is the danger of customer complaints being ignored or inordinately delayed in being dealt with, and of agents being untrustworthy. His solution is to use services like mPesa and Zap, which allow users to transfer money via mobile phones, to text in customer complaints with a code provided by the services. The parent mobile networks (in this case Safaricom and Zain in Kenya) can then have access to reports of agent efficiency, and complaints can be mapped as well. The whole project could be made sustainable via advertising space sold on the Ushahidi-mBanking site as well as broadcast SMS ads.
I think of it as a mobile banking system that could use advertising in the Blyk model for developing countries. With Blyk, brands pay the company to get their messages out to their target audience (the youth), and with Ushahidi-mBanking, brands can pay the networks (Safaricom, Zain or anything else) to get their messages out to lower-income people. I imagine this kind of advertising could be applicable to insurance companies (for example, ICICI Lombard’s Mediclaim and GPA policy for the urban poor in India), the government (public service announcements), and banks like the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. Of course, companies that produce FMCG’s can advertise too, like Unilever or P&G.