Where mobile phones matter: Reaching the developing world

Nathan Eagle, CEO of txteagle“The mobile phone is a developing world technology,” proclaimed MIT researcher turned mobile startup CEO Nathan Eagle in his keynote at Mobilize 2011 in San Francisco Monday. Eagle admitted that he was just as excited as everyone else at the conference about the latest Android handset, but he said that mobile technology has had a far greater impact on people in developing countries, even without 42Mbps speeds and the latest version of iOS.

To make his case, Eagle cited a few key facts:

  • There are currently around 5.3 billion mobile phone subscriptions worldwide. More than three billion of these are from emerging markets.
  • People in emerging markets spend more than $200 billion on airtime every year.
  • On average, ten percent of a person’s income in emerging markets goes towards airtime purchases.
  • More than 90 percent of that airtime is prepaid, as opposed to a monthly plan.
  • In many of these countries, airtime is becoming a currency that replaces traditional cash payments.

Eagle has been working in the last few years on utilizing this need for airtime with a startup called txteagle that offers consumers free airtime in exchange for answers to surveys and similar tasks. On Monday Eagle announced that txteagle is rebranding as JANA, which is Sanskrit for people. “We are all about the people,” he said, only to propose a bold idea: What if advertisers would shift a small percentage of their ad spending towards airtime credits? “Instead of going into the pockets of people who own billboards… give it to consumers,” he suggested.

JANA has been working on making such new forms of advertising possible by integrating their solution into the billing system of 230 operators in 80 countries, reaching a potential audience of more than two billion people. One of the recent projects included surveys by the World Bank to see how much a kilogram of rice costs around the world, another involved a partnership with NPR’s Planet Money that asked people around the world what they would do with $15.

The bigger story behind reaching these consumers and empowering them through airtime credits is the immense growth of discretionary spending in developing countries over the coming decades – a trend that Eagle called a wonderful thing and that he cautioned not to ignore. “We are gonna be dwarfed by these emerging markets,” he said, adding: “It’s the story of our lifetime.”

Watch live streaming video from mobilize2011 at livestream.com