Almost half of the world’s people live on less than $2.50 a day. In my country, Ghana, nearly 30 percent of the population and almost 60 percent of those under 25 survive below this grim poverty line—facing stark daily choices between spending on food, healthcare, education and shelter.
In a world where the wealthiest one percent controls 39 percent of the wealth, the poorest have few options. As a social entrepreneur specializing in technology, I interact both with the business world and rural communities, where a majority of the poor can be found. My work in these places has shown me that in poor communities, people are often forced by circumstance to either wait for donor assistance or for the government to fix their problems. Given the lack of basic education in rural Ghana, youthful populations often do not have the skills to develop their own solutions to the problems they have to live with every day.
In Ghana, and elsewhere in the developing world, business can play a key role in the fight against poverty. Many companies now have corporate social responsibility policies, and are starting to use them as a tool to come up with innovative ways to increase economic opportunity. This marks a shift from the standard aid approach of the past, which frequently saw donors simply pick a rural village to provide with food, books and medical supplies—short term, quick-fix solutions at best. Businesses, with their eyes on the market, focus on longer-term strategies.
The good news is that mobile phone penetration has hit over 100 percent in Ghana and the country has been ranked by a recent International Telecommunications Union (ITU) report as having the highest mobile broadband penetration in Africa. The World Bank and African Development Bank report there are 650 million mobile users in Africa, surpassing the number in the United States or Europe. The same report found that in some African countries there are more people with access to a mobile phone than to clean water, a bank account or electricity.
Africa’s mobile revolution presents huge new opportunities for business and economic growth in these countries. According to the World Bank, an average of 10 telephones for every 100 people is enough to increase a developing country’s gross national product by 0.8 percent. My company, Soronko Solutions is using a basic mobile phone and laptop technology to tackle poverty. We are doing this by introducing rural children to an interactive supplementary educational curriculum which involves interacting with a science and technology web and mobile learning platform, learning to code, conducting experiments, and competing in an annual innovation prize.
To ensure that we achieve our goals, we use an apprenticeship program to encourage participants to convert their new technology skills into workable products and businesses. One such project is a simple mobile application to look up information on causes, treatment and preventive measures for malaria, tuberculosis and cholera. The application can track immunization schedules, locate the nearest local hospitals and outreach centers and receive alerts on where and when community outreach programs will be held in English and a local language.
To be sure traditional aid is also being reworked along market lines, and still has a role to play alongside business, but long term solutions require building local skills and partnerships between businesses and social enterprises to root solutions firmly in local communities.
Business can support social enterprises with funding and advice, while social enterprises can leverage their knowledge of local communities to develop innovative training programs and transfer skills to local people. Businesses also need to support accelerator or apprenticeship programs whereby the skills taught can be converted into products and services so that they provide jobs and generate incomes. By supporting such initiatives, businesses can both discover new markets and also develop a skilled labor force that will eventually contribute to the growth of both the business itself and the broader economy.
It is important to note that such strategic collaboration requires patience, respect for the local culture, understanding of how the communities function, and innovative out-of-the-box thinking. It means partnership and dialogue. It is with these collaborations that we can achieve positive results in the fight against poverty.
Agyare, a 2013 New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute, graduated from Ghana’s Ashesi University in 2005 as one of the top software developers in her class. After six years working in the banking and technology industry, Agyare founded Soronko Solutions, which focuses on developing and promoting unique technology solutions to address social issues in Ghana and other parts of West Africa. She is particularly passionate about using technology to help integrate disabled persons into the broader society, and has pioneered a program to introduce technology at Ghana’s State School of the Deaf. Follow her on Twitter at @ragyare.
The Fellowship, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, offers development experts from Africa and other parts of the developing world a year-long program of media support, training, research and writing under the guidance of experienced mentors and trainers.
The program will help Fellows to sharpen their messages, elevate their stories, focus their media targets, and communicate their insights across a variety of media platforms – illuminating crucial grassroots perspectives for a broad worldwide audience.