Over the past several months I have been seeing particularly much of the mobile industry in the Developing World. While there has been work in typical countries of the industrialized world, in the UK, Netherlands, Canada, Singapore and Hong Kong, the past five months or so have had me in very many countries of the Developing World, in Colombia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Bangladesh, Venezuela and Mexico. Furthermore several of my recent jobs even when not in such a country, has been with a group of operators or a vendor who are now focusing in that region, such as Telenor Group and the Axiata Group who both focus on emerging markets here in Asia. So I have been exposed a lot to the needs of the markets in the Developing World and have seen that many of the issues are similar across these markets.
Then I held my 2 day course here in Hong Kong about media, marketing and advertising, for a 3G/4G environment. I was expecting participation from some of the more advanced markets like Hong Kong and South Korea, or markets that have recently been moving ahead fast into the advanced mobile markets, such as Malaysia and UAE, and indeed those countries were represented. But honestly I was not expecting to see attendance from Africa, and far less so, from a country like The Gambia.
TINY AFRICAN COUNTRY
Mr Almamy Kassama is the Director of Customer Service at Gamcel, one of the mobile operators of The Gambia. Lets put The Gambia into context. It is that very tiny country on the West Coast (ie Atlantic Ocean side) of Africa, which is totally encircled by Senegal. Only 320 km ie 200 miles long, very narrow, the swamp-ridden country runs along the both banks of the Gambia river. The country is only 50 km wide at its widest point. To put it in context of size, it is slightly smaller than the US state of Connecticut, or about twice the size of Luxembourg, or half the size of Brunei or half the size of Israel. Clearly a small country.
The Gambia has a population of 1.7 million people. The capital is Banjul and the biggest city is Serrekunda, with about 140,000 population. Over 70% of the country is agricultural and the only significant export crop is the peanut. English is the official language and over 90% of the population is Muslim. The GDP per capita is - remember this is an agricultural country in Africa, no rich in natural resources like oil of gold or diamonds - the GDP per capita is 380 dollars (yes, per year, that is not a misprint). Can you imagine trying to live on 32 dollars per month, on a dollar per day. But that is the local economy,. the average Gambian earns an income of a dollar per day.
Yet they have mobile telecoms. Even competition in mobile telecoms. And the national mobile phone penetration rate is still very low, at only 18%, but that is almost one in five persons. Certainly all new subscribers in The Gambia are so poor they cannot afford a new phone, do not own a TV set, cannot afford a newspaper or a cup of coffee, and do not have even an FM radio at home. They will not connect to the internet with broadband, they cannot afford even dial up connections or used personal computers. The one hundred dollar cheap laptop is totally beyond the reach of the average Gambian, it would mean four months of their total income, not four months of their disposable income.
I have not visited countries this poor, professionally, and have no first-hand knowledge of their phone markets. In that way, I had a most insightful and delightful discussion with Mr Almamy Kassama of Gamcel, at the lunch break of our course here in Hong Kong. He told me of several stories of how very basic telecoms services in The Gambia are dramatically helping the productivity of local people.
IMAGINE BEING DISABLED IN SUCH A COUNTRY
One of the most heart-warming stories he told, was about disabled people who used to be beggars on the streets in the cities of The Gambia. The nation does not have a strong social framework to support those who are disabled, so the disabled had been forced mostly to a life of being a beggar on the streets. They would typically sit in the sunshine all day, asking for a coin or two from passers-by. The Gambia has a significant tourist industry especially from English-speaking countries, and it would often be tourists who would then provide most of the money to the beggars. Much due to the specific locations of tourist destinations, and significant other 'good spots' for begging, location-location-location apparently hold even for beggars - the same beggars tended to be in the same locations.
Gamcel decided to do a little experiment and offer the disabled of The Gambia a chance of part-time employment. They offered the disabled the chance to sell SIM cards, ie mobile phone subscriptions. As part of the 'dealer kit' they offered sun shades, umbrellas, which had the Gamcel logo. Now passers-by would know that this person was not begging, but was an 'authorized reseller' of Gamcel subscriptions and top-ups. Furthermore, while the disabled were typically always in the same location, they had know disabilities, often obvious and visible, such as a person without legs cannot walk, or another is clearly blind, etc. Such disabled people were easy targets for robbers and muggers. As a single disabled person, they had no 'power' to ask for support of the local policemen, who would know the disabled persons very well but did not bother to protect them, as they seemed to be at the bottom of the order of power. Gamcel as the big national telecoms company, came to the police department and asked that the police extend their protection to their disabled 'dealership network' and almost overnight, after a few highly publicized arrests and prison sentences, the crime towards the disabled had almost disappeared in the Gambia.
In a very short time, because the disabled former 'beggars' had their regular known spots in a given street corner, with their sun screens and the Gamcel logos, their little dealerships, they soon picked up a regular set of clients. As they were accustomed to working long hours begging, these new entrepreneours were not concerned about working past the official hours and would happily serve their regular clients late into the night if one needed a top-up or a new SIM card etc.
The disabled of The Gambia then organized into an association, with paying dues, and now offer a basic social services care system, such as assisting with the costs of death and burial, if one of their members dies, etc.
PRIDE IN HAVING A JOB
Overall, in an incredibly poor country where most economic opportunities are in agriculture, and where if you are disabled, you are almost totally shut out of the modest economic opportunities the country has to offer, suddenly through this type of micro-employment, what would at best be seen as part-time jobs of at best supplemental income in most other countries, can actually raise the level of these disabled people to above the national average in income, earning far more than a dollar per day, out of their commissions with Gamcel SIM cards and top-ups. They also had now the sunscreens, the umbrellas, that they would never have afforded to buy from the income of their begging. And they have now gained the official protection of the police, so they are not robbed and attacked on the street. And through organizing, they have even an association that is looking after their interests and helping construct the basics of a social safety support system, one that the government is too poor to be able to provide.
But most of all, these former beggars have gained employment, and a true sense of achievement and accomplishment. Pride in their lives. Try to imagine if you were in that situation, for perhaps decades begging in the streets with no hope of advancement ever, forced to beg for coins to pay for food, living on the streets in the heat of the sun. Now suddenly they can gain honest employment and that pride and self-respect, being an authorized dealer, part of a national association and truly raising in the economic stature, to earning above average wages in that country. While not 'middle class' by any definition, they are feeling able to participate in society. And imagine what fear it must have been in the past, knowing that any passer-by might mug or rob you, and the police would walk idly by, not helping you; but now you are protected by the police and nobody dare rob you. The peace of mind this has to bring.
These disabled also now can afford to be connected, they have their own phones, more than half of all phone handsets in The Gambia are used handsets from Europe, and I would guess all of hese are old hand-me-down basic phones, but still, nonetheless, they are becoming connected, and now with their phones, they can serve their customers even more. And when their own sister or brother or parent or child has a special day, a birth day, etc, they can call and congratulate, and even afford to save a little bit of money to buy a gift.
FIRST TIME CONNECTED
I have heard many wonderful stories from India and Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and Pakistan; I have heard wonderful stories from the Philippines and Indonesia; from many countries in Latin America; but it seems the most heart-warming stories tend to come from Africa, where there is no other option. Before one had a mobile phone, they really did have to walk 10 km one way, in the burning sunshine, to the neighboring village where the teacher lives, to go pay the fee in cash to the school teacher, so their child could attend school, etc. What is the change in your life if you had no fixed landline phone, and had never seen one, never used a landline phone; that you had no TV and no radio, and your family had never had one. Where most of the village is illiterate and there are no newspapers. But then to such a society, we introduce mobile phone connectivity, and even one phone, shared among villagers, to allow that important contact, that cousin Jimmy was married in the town, or uncle Johnny has gotten off unemployment and has a first-time job in the city, etc. The value of that first-ever connectivity is incredible. Its what Jan Chipchase of Nokia has been saying for many years: "When people who aren't currently connected become connected, it makes a huge difference to their lives." I totally agree.
Thank you Mr Kassama for sharing that story with me. Congratulations to your team at Gamcel, this is a heart-warming story and example of also social responsibilitity by a mobile operator. I hope this story brings a little bit of cheer to our readers here at the Communities Dominate blog, and helps put in context the overall big picture of digital convergence and mobile telecoms, as we debate Android and iPhone and Blackberry and the N-Series. There is another 4 billion out there, being connected as we speak, and they are not like you and me, reading this blog. But they, even more than you and I, will appreciate the first-time connectivity. And that first-time connection will not be on a PC or laptop or netbook. It will be either on an ultra-cheap phone, or more likely, a second-hand phone.
I will be writing a couple of other mobile stories from the Developing World, and ask our readers to also mention when you find stories, please add to the comments here.