Jana’s quest to redistribute mobile wealth

Outsourcing is a dirty word these days, but Nathan Eagle wanted to use the power of global labor markets for good when he launched Txteagle some two years ago. Eagle’s idea was simple but powerful: He wanted to give mobile phone users in countries like Kenya small tasks via SMS that they could complete and pay them in air time, which is increasingly becoming a currency of its own in many developing countries. If U.S. companies just redirected a small percentage of their transcription and translation tasks to Africa, it could help to lift millions out of poverty, hoped Eagle.

He got a lot of press for the idea, but not everyone liked it. Critics called this type of outsourcing “profiteering” and “exploitation.” Eagle insisted that this wasn’t his intention — but two years later, he has to admit: His critics may have been on to something. I caught up with Eagle at our Mobilize conference earlier this week, and he told me that the realities of outsourcing didn’t match up with his expectations. As a for-profit company, Txteagle was suddenly pushed to find the cheapest workforce possible, and leave markets as quickly as it entered them. “That pushed us down a direction that… wasn’t really what we set out to do,” said Eagle. Check out my entire interview with him below:


So Txteagle changed course, and eventually its name as well. The company is now called Jana, which is Sanskrit for people, and utilizes the same technical infrastructure that enabled labor outsourcing to conduct surveys and marketing. Jana has integrated its platform into the billing system of 230 mobile phone operators in 80 countries worldwide, making it possible to access more than two billion consumers.

Eagle couldn’t tell me much about the corporate clients of his company, but he said that one of the customers is the United Nations, which once sent teams all over the world to survey people about disaster preparedness. Now, the U.N. is using Jana to reach out to people for a fraction of the cost.

However, what gets Eagle really excited these days is the prospect of mobile marketing, coupled with the incentive of payments to consumers. Take a survey about your brand preferences or buy a certain brand of laundry detergent, and you’ll get some free air time in exchange: air time that’s not only expensive in many countries around the world, but that can increasingly also be used to buy real goods, pay for electricity bills and more.

Of course, this new direction won’t persuade globalization critics, who might just see it as another cheap ploy to mess with local markets. Eagle, however, shrugs these kinds of objections off, because he has a bigger goal in mind: He wants to redistribute wealth through mobile technology. Global brands should move their marketing dollars in emerging markets to consumers instead of spending them on billboards, said Eagle during his Mobilize keynote, calculating that a reallocation of 30 percent of these ad budgets could cause a seismic shift: “You could give one billion people a five-percent raise,” he said.

Image courtesy of (CC-BY-SA) Flickr user Bindalfrodo.