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Grameen, Gates Foundation eye mobile technology for development


SEATTLE--The Grameen Foundation has lifted some of the world’s poorest through lending circles dealing in the smallest amounts of money. Now it is trying to use mobile phone texts, cloud computing and software to scale its successful microfinance model to reach more people around the globe.

Many of the tech ideas behind that vision are being formed here, in an office building off downtown Seattle’s bustling Belltown area. In their 10th floor suite, two dozen former high-tech industry workers are using the skills they honed at Microsoft, Oracle and McKinsey for global development. They have created mobile phone and Internet applications to warn farmers in Uganda of banana crop rot, remind pregnant women of medical checkups, keep microlending programs in check through cloud-based applications and use Web-based data to make sure their program are working.

“Tech is an enabler, not the end goal. It’s about putting information into people’s hands and empowering them,” David Edelstein, vice president of technology programs for Washington D.C.-based Grameen, said in a recent interview.

Grameen is one of several organizations, including the World Bank and the U.S. State Department, that have grasped onto the power of mobile phone technology in their objectives for development work. Ironically, cutting-edge information applications and the ubiquitous availability of mobile phones in some of the poorest of nations have made cell phones a new platform for development work. Mobile phones -- 5 billion globally -- are being adopted faster than any technology. A family may share one phone or, for as little as $1 in some African nations, it may buy a SIM card to use in a village phone.

That spells opportunity, development groups say. If the world's neediest are already using the technology, it can also be used to transfer and gather information and create commerce, they say.

“Our ultimate objective is to get people to save and to deal with even the smallest of transactions of a few dollars, which banks don’t do now because of high transaction costs," Ignacio Mas, deputy director of financial services at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said in an interview. "That is how to reach the world's poorest."

Seattle, home to the Gates Foundation, has become a magnet for high-tech global philanthropists. Mas is using mobile banking technology to help villagers in Africa and Pakistan save money by converting cash into electronic money in villages that banks are overlooking. The Gates Foundation has funded a $34 million initiative for central bank officials around the world to learn from countries such as Kenya. That nation’s biggest telecommunications firm and a bank have transformed small shops into virtual banks for rural villagers, who are able to convert cash into electronic currency through text messaging of deposits and withdrawals of money through mobile phones.

The Grameen Technology Center, formed nine years ago by a former executive at Microsoft, has deployed applications in Uganda that send text-message reminders for neo-natal patients in Ghana to take medication and tests. Through a partnership with Google and the local telecom service provider, Grameen is able to collect data through smart phones on how farmers are dealing with crop disease and then serve up instructions from the cell phones on how farmers can keep their crops from getting infected.

Post Tech will be looking more into technology and global development. Stay tuned.

photo: Ignacio Mas, deputy director of financial services, The Gates Foundation
photo credit: Cecilia kang

By Cecilia Kang  |  September 3, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  International , Microsoft , Mobile , Tech for Development  
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