How the Mobile Phone is Enabling a New Social Enterprise Economy

By Mark Cheng and Laura Kromminga, Hybrid Finance team, Ashoka

How the Mobile Phone is Enabling a New Social Enterprise Economy

Do you remember that old mobile phone that you traded in years ago? Chances are, your phone may be helping power a new social revolution for millions living in poverty around the world.

Most of the phones in use have only basic call and texting functions. But that is enough to enable mobile business models to spring up and help create a new ‘social enterprise economy.’

“The mobile phone may be the single most important tool ever for lifting people out of poverty,” says Ken Banks, Entrepreneur-in-Residence at CARE International, and a recognized expert on technology for development. “We’re moving beyond popular cashless mobile payment systems into a new phase – the integration of mobile tech with offline service delivery. This is going to transform every sector out there, from retail to healthcare.”

Three social ventures show this trend at work:

mPedigree: Authenticating products

At least one in five of the medicines that you might buy in a drugstore in sub-Saharan Africa is fake, according to Ashoka Fellow Bright Simons from Ghana. It is a devastating statistic that accounts for hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths annually, and one that prompted Simons to launch mPedigree, a simple SMS based system that enables customers to immediately identify whether the medicines they are buying are real or not. Each packet of medicine is labelled with a unique code that a customer can text from the shop and receive immediate verification of whether the medicine is genuine or not. mPedigree now has labels on more than 500,000 medical packets across Africa, and sees the opportunity to extend its counterfeit detection technology to hundreds of other product groups in emerging markets.

Even if customers can reliably confirm that the medicine that they are buying is genuine, actually getting it on the shelf can be a challenge in itself. Pharmacies and shops serving low-income communities often lack the resources to manage their stock reliably and in a timely fashion.

Sokowatch: Ensuring Vital Supplies

“Stock-outs happen all the time,” says Daniel Yu, CEO & co-founder of Sokowatch, a social enterprise that provides a data-driven distribution network for small stores in urban areas of developing countries.

“We observed pharmacies that might be empty of vital medicines for months at a time, simply because they had no reliable system for putting in orders when needed. Our solution enables the pharmacist to become a mobile data agent. With nothing more than a phone, they can keep track of stock in real time, and easily and reliably notify manufacturers ahead of time when a new shipment needs to be ordered.”

Yu won the Unilever Sustainable Living Young Entrepreneurs Award in 2015 for his solution. Similar to mPedigree, Sokowatch sees the potential for its tech to go beyond healthcare. “Any small shop or retail outlet in the ‘last mile’ could use our solution. That’s a huge global market,” says Yu.

Simprints: Biometric identification for customers with no formal ID

More than two billion people in the world today have no form means of identification. Imagine how challenging this must make it for healthcare workers: If you’re providing potentially life-saving vaccinations to children in an underserved area, how you do know if the child that you are seeing today wasn’t already vaccinated last month?

A team from Cambridge University thinks they have the answer – a robust, low-cost fingerprint scanner that can be connected to a mobile phone and immediately confirm the identity of a patient.

“Our affordable fingerprint scanner has been field-tested extensively for reliability and ease-of-use. It’s designed to seamlessly connect to a smartphone, where it can be used for almost limitless applications,” says Toby Norman, co-founder of Simprints. “Our beneficiaries don’t have IDs, and may not be able to write their signatures. We give health workers and other NGOs the ability to make quick, reliable identification and immediately connect to digital records.”

Norman says that Simprints is open sourcing the software for their scanner so that other social entrepreneurs can adapt the technology for almost any use. Micro-finance (confirming the identity of borrowers) and aid distribution (confirming aid recipients) are just two other massive potential areas.

All three companies – mPedigree, Sokowatch and Simprints – demonstrate the potential of mobile technology to open up new business models for the world’s poorest customers.

“This is just the start,” concludes Banks. “These products and services are like an app store for development, where social enterprises can simply plug in and build new business models on top – businesses that simply couldn’t have been done before without this technology. It’s going to change services for billions.

Editor’s Note: Mark Cheng (@chelcap) and Laura Kromminga (@laurakromminga) work in the Hybrid Finance team at Ashoka. UBS and Ashoka have partnered up to launch the UBS Social Innovators program – an international, multi-year search and support package for social entrepreneurs looking to scale their social businesses. Follow the conversation online at #UBSInnovate on Twitter.

This article first appeared on and is reproduced with permission.

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