Mobile Technology and Sustainable Development

With mobile devices becoming cheaper and network coverage growing stronger, the uptake of mobile technology is still on an upward swing. Given the ubiquity of mobile phones and their use among a broad cross-section of the global population, many creative thinkers are harnessing the potential of mobile technology to bridge knowledge gaps, alleviate poverty and help our environment.

Autor*in Anna Rees, 09.03.13

According to GSMA, there are approximately 3.6 billion unique mobile phone subscribers worldwide and 7.5 billion SIM connections worldwide. Mobile phone manufacturer Ericsson estimates that this subscription figure will reach 9 billion by 2017.

Smartphone adoption among those connected sits at 51 per cent in Europe and 70 per cent in North America. Adoption rates in the developing world are growing and are expected to hit between 70 and 80 per cent by 2018. Despite this, the market for so-called ‘dumb phones’ (i.e. handsets that make and receive voice calls and send and receive SMS) is still relatively healthy, with around 590 million of these devices sold in 2015.

With their ability to fast-track communication and connect a large number of people in next-to-no time and with relative ease, mobile phones are emerging as the preferred modus operandi for a number of organisations, activists or social entrepreneurs looking to solve an issue by going straight to the heart of the community that said issue affects. The advent and proliferation of mobile technology allows people in rural locations to transfer money, pay bills and receive medical advice or care among a host of other benefits.

Recognising the Potential

Many believe that in the coming years, more people will access the internet via their mobile phones than any other device. Among the reasons for this are: the portability of mobile technologies; increased development in computational abilities and the fact that mobile phones don’t need to be constantly hooked up to a power source (as in the case with PCs) and their batteries generally have a longer battery life than laptop batteries.

The proliferation of mobile devices alone speaks for itself. There are now more mobile phones in the world than there are people on the planet. Russia has 1.8 times as many mobile accounts as people and Brazil has 1.3 times as many. By 2020, it is estimated that globally, there will be 1.5 mobile devices per capita.

This trend is rapid fire in the case of internet-ready mobile devices. A 2015 report by networking company Cisco showed that smartphones accounted for most of the mobile devices and connections added in 2015, while average smartphone grew by 43 per cent from 2014. The report shows enormous growth potential in Asia and Africa, stating that Africa and the Middle East are on track to experience the fastest growth in mobile data traffic, with the Asia Pacific region coming in a close second.

In early 2013, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) held a roundtable event, on the back of its RapidSMS programme which is an open source platform that facilitates monitoring and tracking in key areas that the UN is concerned with, looking at ways to use mobile technology towards sustainable development. The UN involvement in the area marks the top-down approach to tackling sustainability and development using mobile technology while the situation on the ground and in communities is yielding enormous results.

The Tools

Apps. A number of apps (applications) look to place issues such as environmentalism directly in the hands of the public such as the Visibility app for smartphones which allows users to test air quality simply by using the phone’s camera. Run by the Universty of California’s Robotic Embedded Lab, the app encourages people to take a picture of the sky which is then sent to a central computer where the sky’s luminance is measured. The app user then receives information on their phone about air pollution in the area. Indian social enterprise Mobile Harvest uses smartphone and app capabilities to connect those within the agricultural sector and help them share useful tips. The app records farmers discussing successful yields and detailing how these can be replicated. The reports are then catalogued using a set of recognisable symbols meaning that farmers with little-to-no literacy skills can also access the information.

While potentially a solid tool for sustainable action, apps, as they currently exist, pose marginal benefit to overall sustainable development. Apps generally run on smartphones, which have a much lower penetration rate in developing countries compared to standard handsets. According to a TechCrunch article written by co-lead of Tech Innovation at UNICEF, Erica Kochi, the cost of running an app (in terms of data transfer) would still be out of reach for many people in developing countries, therefore the focus would need to be on creating apps that use as little bandwidth as possible. 

Cameras. Mobile picture-taking capabilities have come a long way since first being incorporated into mobile devices in 2000 and advancements in technology mean that some camera phones now match some of the lower end digital cameras in terms of pixel and image quality.

A host of organisations now promote citizen engagement by encouraging people to use their phone’s camera for good. Practitioners in various areas of sustainable development (particularly wildlife conservation and biodiversity) use phone camera-shot images as a means of tracking and analysis. In the case of biodiversity, a number of organisations encourage users to upload their flora and fauna shots to a central database where the organisation can then use any recognisable markings on the plants and animals in the pictures to keep note of an animal’s movements or, as in the case of the LeafSnap Project run by Columbia University, help catalogue the impact of climate change on certain plant species.

Photo sharing sites like Flickr are also being used to promote wildlife conservation with species specialists using these platforms to also identify and track various animals based on photos that people have uploaded to the site. Scientists have also developed ways to turn smartphone cameras into cost-effective microscopes as well as medical tools for opthalmologists.

Text Message. SMS or text messages are playing a significant role in mobile technology facilitating sustainable development. The service’s commonality, functionality and speed make it possible for anyone with a phone to send and access information, overcoming barriers associated with distance and, often, literacy.

One area where text message is bringing tangible change is the agricultural sector. Mobile technology can connect remotely-located farmers allowing them to access up-to-date information in real time about commodity prices as well as sector and environmental trends to be on the lookout for.

Telco Tata Teleservices Limited introduced a service a few years ago that enabled farmers to operate irrigation pumps remotely via SMS, helping to increase overall productivity and efficiency by eradicating the need to walk the kilometres-long journey to the pumps themselves. Pumps are fitted out with a mobile modem which switches the pump on and off when a user sends a special code via SMS.

Farmers throughout Africa and Asia also use SMS to access daily information about agricultural commodities, arming them with knowledge that can improve their bargaining power when they take their goods to market.

Mobiles Driving Development

Mobile technology’s unique selling point is its ability to bridge gaps – connectivity gaps, distance, gaps, class gaps – by connecting people in an integrated manner and providing a range of services to people who were previously unable to access them whether due to financial or location reasons.

Three of the key areas where mobile technology can drive development are healthcare, banking services and inclusivity. People can conduct business over the phone, do their banking, access information pertaining to their livelihood (such as commodity prices for the agricultural sector), access medical advice and signal for medical care. Put simply, mobile technology places a whole lot more power within the hands of the individual than ever before, giving them agency over many matters in their lives.


Mobile technology is proving to be a versatile apparatus for the healthcare sector both assisting in access to and provision of healthcare services as well as tracking health information in certain regions of the world. The cross pollination of mobile technology and healthcare has become so commonplace, it now has its own term ‘mHealth’.

mHealth provides pathways between health practitioners and patients that may not have previously existed (or may have been too far away/costly to make use of). Having a mobile phone handy means people in remote or poorer areas can seek medical advice with a prompt response. IT giant HP has been working with Positive Innovation for the Next generation and the Clinton Health Access Initiative to manage response rates to malaria outbreaks in Kenya and Botswana. People can send text messages to trained emergency response workers and receive attention in about three minutes, a drastic reduction from pre-mobile days when the average response time could reach three to four weeks in some regional areas. WelTel, another program in Kenya, uses mobile technology to send SMS reminders to people living with HIV/AIDS to help them stick to their medication schedule, eliminating the need to for a health practitioner to do so. Amader Daktar, based in Bangladesh, uses tablets, PCs and mobile phones to provide medical consultations and send prescriptions to remotely-located people.

mHealth is also facilitating women’s health. According to a report on mHealth by the World Bank “Women can use mobile devices to contact health providers without the difficulties that may be implied by face-to-face contact between men and women in some cultures. They can even use some health services anonymously, which may be especially useful for culturally sensitive issues such as family planning.” The initiative Zero Mothers Die provides 100,000 handsets per year to pregnant women in vulnerable areas in sub-Saharan Africa. Tailored, language-specific voice messages are sent to the devices, relaying maternal health information such as warning signs to look out for, nutritional advice, HIV treatment and postnatal infant care and the team maintains contact with each mother from the first prenatal visit through to the child’s second birthday.

Currently, mHealth cannot replace the services of a fully-equipped hospital but it has vastly improved information dissemination as well as driven up the number of people who are able to seek treatment, particularly those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.


A number of initiatives have cropped up worldwide which allow consumers to either access their bank account via a mobile platform (a boon for people located long distances from a bank) or use their mobile device instead of a bank account to help manage their money, either to transfer funds or obtain small credits. One of the most wellknown and successful in this area is M-Pesa (‘M’ for mobile, ‘pesa’ meaning money in Swahili) a mobile bankin platform from Kenya that allows people to make bank transfers, pay bills, withdraw money and more. According to Forbes, 43 per cent of Kenya’s GDP in 2013 “flowed through M-Pesa”. In the same year, M-Pesa facilitated 237 million person-to-person financial transactions.

Inclusivity and Engagement

A number of initiatives have been set up to help promote inclusivity via literacy and employment opportunities as well promote citizen engagement. UNESCO, Mobilink and Bunyad ran a programme in Pakistan in an effort to build literacy rates among young women. As part of the initiative, women aged between 15 and 24 received a low-cost handset upon the completion of a basic literacy course and received a daily SMS for the following four months to help them retain the knowledge they had acquired.

Ushahidi in Kenya is perhaps one of the best known examples of using mobile technology for social good. Initially set up as a volunteer-run mapping website to track and plot outbreaks of violence in Kenya that were sent in via SMS, the platform has developed into a fully-fledged human rights organisation that encourages citizen reporting using mobile technology.

Another platform having a positive impact on people’s livelihoods is Souktel, a Palestinian start up that links jobseekers in impoverished regions or conflict zones with employers via SMS. © World Bank

What’s Next

With huge growth in mobile phone uptake forecast, the opportunities within the medium are endless, though it is perhaps not without its limitations. Despite high rates of penetration, there are still some demographics where uptake is not a high as others. Studies have shown that there is a gender gap in mobile phone subscriptions of about 200 million. According to a 2015 GSMA Development Fund report, women are 14 per cent less likely to own a mobile phone than a man from the same country. This figure jumps to 38 per cent if the woman lives in South Asia. The figure sits at 13 per cent for women in Sub-Saharan Africa and eight per cent in the Middle East and North Africa.

If the potential of mobile technology in sustainable development is to be effectively maximised, intiatives such as that from UNESCO/Mobilink/Bunyad outlined above will need to come to fore, promoting inclusivity and providing a means for women to get connected.

Of course, mobile technology is a not a silver bullet solution. A 2013 article in The Guardian examined reviews of the mHealth sector, arguing the mobile technology poses little benefit to areas such as disease control and health behaviour, highlighting instances where diagnoses made based on photographs taken with a camera phone actually turned out to be false.

As talk of increasing mobile penetration rates increases, so too must solutions to growing electronic waste (e-waste) problems be sought. The average lifespan of an electric appliance is these days calculated at 3-5 years and with mobile phone subscriptions now beyond the 7 billion mark, it doesn’t take a mathematician to calculate that a lot of phones are going to be discarded in the near future. Check out our Knowledge article on e-waste for more information on its environmental and health impacts.

The ability to provide faster, more widespread access to healthcare (and many other services for that matter) is no doubt a huge plus however, mobile technology, as it currently stands, is not an all encompassing solution. Rather, it is a phenomenally powerful tool to help facilitate environmental action and sustainable development with enormous potential to connect people from marginalised communities and provide basic services to those who otherwise might not have access to them.

Author: Anna Rees/ RESET editorial. Last update: May 2016.

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