Can a Mobile Phone Spark Development?

By Ryan Schleeter, National Geographic

Imagine a platform powerful enough to help first responders direct aid in conflict zones, fuel civil society, encourage participation in young democracies, and provide crucial access to information for underserved communities—all at a rapid pace and at the touch of a button.

Now imagine this platform is already in your pocket.

Photograph courtesy
Photograph courtesy

More than three billion people worldwide already have mobile phones, and while most of us use them for our basic communication needs, innovators are reshaping the mobile platform as a tool to enable social change and create informed, prosperous societies. Particularly in the developing world, mobile technologies are quickly emerging as a way to help communities overcome challenges like poverty, inequality, and access to health care and education.

The last decade has seen a surge of innovation in the mobile sector, leading to a wide array of new products and services. Mobile technologies are at the center of revolutions in banking, agriculture, health, education, and media—particularly in the developing world, where citizens have historically been cut off from participating in these activities. Two recent examples highlight the power of innovative thinking and attention to local context to improve lives in these communities.


Guatemala is a country of 15 million people with 22 million registered mobile phones—and experts say that’s likely an underestimate. HablaGuate, a project of Fulbright Scholar and Ashoka Fellow Kara Andrade, leverages the existing presence of mobile phones to enable citizen journalism and shape Guatemala’s young democracy. A native Guatemalan and journalist herself, Andrade built HablaGuate around the idea that access to information is central to allowing citizens to take hold of their own futures.

“It’s part of a broader discussion about digital access and what we would normally call the ‘digital divide.’ The digital divide posits that there are the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ . . . In the traditional way we think of the digital divide, we think of the have nots in a very passive role, but that’s not the case. When you have technologies like mobile that are affordable and have a low barrier to entry, the have nots can use that to get what they need, so they become very active agents in shaping access to resources.”

Since launching HablaGuate in 2010, Andrade has since adapted the model to Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica and formed the HablaCentro platform to further encourage citizen journalism across Central America.


Moving from the young democracy of Guatemala to the even younger democracies of sub-Saharan Africa, FrontlineSMS—founded by National Geographic Emerging Explorer Ken Banks—takes a slightly different approach, but with equally impressive results. FrontlineSMS enables instant communication via text message between computers and phones—without the Internet. This flexibility makes the platform ideal for work in the developing world, particularly in rural areas. Banks stresses that adapting FrontlineSMS to work in different countries and regions requires ensuring the technology meets the diverse needs of different communities.

“People are not the same everywhere, and the complexity of their problems are rarely the same, either . . . The need for replication is often cited as a key pillar in the social entrepreneurship world, but it’s difficult and complex and it more often than not takes a lot more work to get things to work than people think.”

Despite this challenge, FrontlineSMS has certainly expanded. Since launching in 2005 with Zimbabwe’s Kubatana Trust as its first partner, FrontlineSMS is now used in over 1,000 projects across 170 countries worldwide. 

Technology for the Sake of Technology?

Advancements like HablaGuate and FrontlineSMS not withstanding, much of today’s new technology does nothing to improve the lives of world’s most disadvantaged communities. Rather, many new products, including those in the mobile sector, introduce new technology for the purpose of, well, introducing new technology.

One of the obstacles to catalyzing meaningful innovation is the perceived risk of inventing for the developing world. Investors and innovators alike often worry that developing markets cannot support their products in the same way a developed market can. David Keogh is the program director for Global Good, an initiative that supports international development both by fostering innovation and growing developing markets. According to Keogh, the gap between focus on developed and developing markets may be closing.

“Inventing for the developing world is not necessarily different from inventing for the developed world. It requires the same level of curiosity, inventiveness and effort . . . I firmly believe that innovations that target big challenges in the developing world can unlock significant opportunities.”

These herders in Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor use cell phones to record data about their goats. Photograph by Matthieu Paley, National Geographic
These herders in Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor use cell phones to record data about their goats.
Photograph by Matthieu Paley, National Geographic

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