As part of the Mobile Economy Project supported by Qualcomm, The Brookings Institution hosted a forum on October 23rd entitled “Mobile Entrepreneurship around the World” to explore the role of mobile devices in entrepreneurship. The event was hosted by Darrell West, vice president and director of Governance Studies at Brookings and featured Alex Counts, president and CEO of The Grameen Foundation, Mwangi S. Kimenyi, director of Africa Growth Initiative, and Brooke Partridge, president and CEO of Vital Wave Consulting. They discussed Mr. West’s paper, How Mobile Technology is Driving Global Entrepreneurship, by examining mobile entrepreneurship, and relaying examples from their unique points of view on how mobile technology is helping to overcome barriers associated with entrepreneurship and how it can be even more successful in connecting innovators worldwide.
M-Pesa, a mobile-phone based money transfer and microfinancing service, was noted as an example that greatly transformed mEntrepreneurship in Kenya. For example, a CNN article by Toby Shapshak noted that “80% of the world's mobile money transactions are happening in East Africa, driven by Kenya, the epicentre of mobile innovation.” This was discussed at length by the panel, noting that any entrepreneur can pay his staff and send money to customers using the service. Brooke Partridge described M-Pesa services that allow for families to save for the birth of a child, essentially medical insurance, and services that can provide weather insurance for crops.
While M-Pesa has taken off in Kenya, mobile applications and platforms are often built based on a local problem and cannot always be applied, or scaled, to a different country or region. Scaling is a major challenge faced by mEntreprenurship, and as Mwangi S. Kimenyi explained, government and market failures are often the reason behind the inability to scale. Brooke Partridge also noted that using one application across countries and borders rarely works. She argued that scaling can be achieved by replicating applications and achieving scale through smaller implications.
The idea that mobile phones can simply be “thrown over the wall” into a country or region and work effectively is false, according to the experience of Alex Counts. Determining if and why people are benefitting is crucial for mEntrepreneurial success, and that information alone is not enough to impact behavior. Counts described entrepreneurial programs where “community knowledge workers” connect individuals with information that is useful to them. It’s this “last mile” of connection that links the mobile phone to people that makes lasting change possible.
In fact, Counts noted that these workers have begun direct survey research to determine what information is most valuable to specific areas. With this research, mobile app developers can create programs that will ultimately aid in mEntrepreneurial success.
While mobile devices are empowering the world’s entrepreneurs, especially in developing countries, there is still room for growth to ensure that mobile applications can be localized and used successfully across countries and regions. According to the TIME Mobility Poll, 90 percent of mobile users worldwide think it is extremely or somewhat important that wireless mobile technology offers businesses online tools such as inventory planning, and gives individuals the opportunity to improve financial literacy and management planning through accessing a vast range of online information and services.
As this discussion clearly shows, finding human and technical solutions that harness the power of mobile devices that impact behaviors and open doors can spur even greater entrepreneurship around the world and across industries.