Expert Views | Osama Manzar

Mobile can make information-rich society
 
The huge Indian mass base needs to be served holistically with mobile support services. I strongly feel private players can play a meaningful role to reach out to the population.
 
The idea of mBillionth Award emerged because we have been running Manthan Award for the past 9 years, which recognizes best ICT for Development (ICTD) initiatives and how digital inclusion impacts people across diverse communities and in remote areas. Three years ago, we realized that the mobile has had an accelerator impact on the general mass of the country. Digital tools and applications were emerging as next-best empowering devices and platforms in right usage and context. This became an encouraging thought to ideate about: how the mobile can change lives, impact masses, be used as an innovative tool to reach many, many more. Ours is an oral society, and mobile is oral in technical nature ceven more reason to focus on this emergence. And so came about the mBillionth Award in 2010.
 
mBillionthAward 2012 is the third edition. The journey since inception has been extraordinary, overwhelming. Umpteen innovators and path breakers in the mobile domain have made impacts through their innovative solutions. Innovative ideas, mobile innovations, and telecom innovations have driven the success of the platform. mBillionthfs recognition and scaling up has reached to more than hundred innovators and innovations across South Asia. The repository of mobile innovations across all South Asia nations has been equally exemplary and contemporary in excellence.
 
Why is this award called mBillionth? As of now, even as you read this, mobile is increasing in numbers each day. It’s the fastest-growing digital device. This is a portrayal of how many people, how many lives are impacted, with each passing day. This reflects the rate of innovation, applications, content and services serving the needs of millions of people in India and South Asia. The impact is not in millions but in billions.
 
The mBillionth horizon is beyond the Award per se. It is a complete life cycle of identifying best practices, bringing them onto a platform, to take them through the best of minds and experts as a jury system, identify the best and collectively bringing these on one platform where they can be recognized as a best innovation across 12 categories- health, business, livelihood, finance, commerce, financial inclusion, culture, heritage, travel, tourism, entrepreneurship, among others. Post-award and recognition, the path is of connecting to the media world, identifying select best innovations for further mentorship and making sure the nominations and innovations are not only for the purpose of business but also for a sustainable business life cycle impacting larger society. Being a part of the mBillionth award is not so much about applying as a ‘nomination’, it is more about getting recognized, getting funding, getting support, getting mentorship, getting across hundreds of other possible partners and exchanging ideas, even multiplying business prospects.
 
One holistic approach in mBillionth is synthesizing this platform with Vodafone Foundation. For the past two years this partnership has provided funding windows to nurture and scale up socially relevant mobile applications as deployed and used by NGOs. Surprisingly, they are not one or two. They are almost more than two hundred, in just the last two years. These social enterprises are using mobile for larger perspective and in extremely innovative ways, with very basic mobile features. For several years we have been funding them, supporting them, mentoring them and will continue to do.
 
The question naturally emerges as to whether and how challenges in setting up and broadening the mBillionth platform have been overcome. This is more so when the vision is to associate eight South Asian countries. As I said earlier, we have been doing ManthanAward for South Asia for the past 8 years; this is going to be the 9th year. Therefore, the reach and network of partnership and coverage is already there. We have a working relationship in these countries, and with partners who are ICT-oriented, digitally inclusive and who have been working in their own countries to make sure the proliferation of ICT and Internet happens for the larger good. To mention some: we have ICTA in Sri Lanka, CAN in Nepal, Bytes for All in Pakistan, D.Net in Bangladesh and NICTAA in Afghanistan. The Manthan Award helped us to take partnership forward to the mobile domain. The only concern, a challenging one, was how to bring telecom or mobile-based association. And thanks to Manthan Award and digital empowerment foundation’s extensive work, we have been able to get reliable partners in all these countries of South Asia.
 
I am not sure how the mobile innovation market has been performing in the past two years. However, what I am aware of are several innovations taking place in the mobile sector, which are encouraging as well as disappointing. It’s extremely encouraging how individuals, NGOs or an organization, or government on its own, have been able to find innovative ways to use the mobile. Because it has reached to the masses, to serve them through health services or financial inclusion services or several kinds of services, say, the NREGA. But what has been disappointing is that the biggest motivator of the mobile industry, the socalled private sector and big mobile and VAS companies, is still in their old mode of operation without much innovation.
 
It does not appear that private players are viewing the mass market in terms of their innovative solutions reaching them. Even so, it is equally difficult to put the blame wholly on them. However, what is important to consider is the huge Indian mass base needs to be served holistically with mobile support services. I strongly feel private players can play a meaningful role to reach out to the population. This is in contrast to the current focus on only VAS-kind of applications and typical jingle-based or IVRbased kind of applications, targeting only metros of the country. On the other side, there is a huge market lined at thegrassroots level in rural India, which I feel the corporate sector or leading mobile companies should meaningfully target. These players have the financial support base to invest in those areas and come out with killer applications.
 
I feel the biggest change-maker in the mobile and telecom domain today is the social sector, NGOs and social organizations including government organizations. I am finding they are the real innovative users of mobiles, the power of mobile, mobile applications, in the form of an app or an SMS or IVR or customized MIS applications or mbanking. For example, the National Rural Employment
 
Guarantee Programme in India is cited as a successful case of using mobile with biometric attached to it, to make sure payment goes to the right hand, to the right person who executed the job. What is required is to take various mobile innovations to the next level of standardization. The current scenario is that there are many innovations happening in different corners of the country. ð£ey are great efforts, no doubt, but somehow they are not being standardized.
 
The mBillionth Award is more than an award. It is an ecosystem. It is a means to scout best practitioners in South Asia region, a subcontinent that shares more commonality of challenges and destiny than anything else. It’s a process to recognize unsung heroes and support their initiatives without any commercial entanglement. It’s an ecosystem of empowerment, identifying best practices, mentoring, funding and cross-exchange of ideas. It has emerged as a wide platform to feed innovative ideas and practices to government stakeholders on ways and means of using mobile applications, solutions of service providers and mobile content creators who are capable enough to serve various national mission mode programmes, if engaged meaningfully. And we feel delighted and encouraged to find this is happening, it is actually happening and that, too, successfully.
 
The long-term focus of mBillionth remains intact. The vision is to consolidate this platform into a strong corpusbased funding and mentoring organization, wherein the focus shall be more towards empowering innovative ideas which can empower the local masses and address local needs of rural markets. The other end of this vision is to create social entrepreneurs, young entrepreneurs using mobile as an application to develop, to make a business out of it and reach out to the masses. The ‘mobile for social good’ is already on with Vodafone Foundation to encourage and nurture NGO practitioners who are into mobile-based solution to reach out to the health, education, governance and livelihood sectors in India. Our effort remains to consolidate overall focus with a corpus equity fund, which shall invest in various ideas that have social impact without compromising on commercial returns. We have, overall, 1200 ideas in our repository. At the moment we are making efforts to see how this entire mobile ecosystem can use these ideas and reach to the large number of entrepreneurs and people in rural areas through the government and NGOs as supporting platforms, making sure that the mobile can become the tool for empowerment of our information-poor society.
 
Osama Manzar
Founder & Director: Digital Empowerment Foundation
Curator: mBillionth Award