African mobile-phone users are increasingly turning to their devices for functions beyond making calls, said speakers at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology panel discussion on Friday.
In a continent with limited infrastructure, phones serve as income boosters, a teaching tool and wallets, according to speakers during a session at the Africa 2.0 forum.
The predominance of pre-paid phones in Africa means that "air time is exactly equivalent to cash," said Nathan Eagle, CEO of Txt Eagle, a company he started in 2008 that aims to help mobile-phone users in developing nations earn income with their handsets.
With Africans spending 10 percent of their yearly income on air time, Eagle said the question becomes: "How can we think of the phone as a mechanism to compensate people?"
For Txt Eagle, this means compensating users for providing the company with data. While working on a health-care project that called for nurses in rural Kenyan hospitals to send a text message on blood supply information to a central database, Eagle discovered that paying the nurses for their messages and giving them air time credit directly affected their participation.
Not covering the cost of a text message was "essentially asking them to take a pay cut," he realized when participation plummeted after one month.
Txt Eagle's data on its approximately 2.1 billion users will also help companies advertise their products to developing markets, a critical space for corporations since mature markets will not yield additional buyers, Eagle said.
"Right now this is the way to engage them," he said. "For many of them, it is the only way. There is a fundamental lack of data in emerging markets."
The effects of mobile communications' high cost was also witnessed by Jenny Aker, an assistant professor of development economics at Tufts University whose work includes studying how Niger farmers used mobile phones to obtain information on what markets paid for crops.
"Mobile phones are reducing communication costs, allowing people to get access to information," she said.
In Niger, sending text messages is cheaper than making a phone call, she said. But with a national illiteracy rate of 80 percent, the country's farmers were unable to utilize the more cost-effective communication method.
"The question was: Could we harness a simple phone as an educational tool?" she said.
Aker and her team developed a literacy class centered around mobile phones and included lessons on how to use handsets as well as how to convey basic written information. After eight months, the farmers achieved elementary-school education levels in reading and writing, Aker said.
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