Erastus Apwacho, a Form Three student at Maseno High School, wants to be an aeronautical engineer. Like many students his age, he’s been told over and over again that only hard work will pay off, and he’s working hard. However, even in the best of schools, voracious readers like him find themselves limited by the school libraries, which often remain closed during the holidays.
Which is why he was excited when he first heard of Shupavu291 while listening to radio back in 2016. For KES1.50 daily or KES10 weekly, Erastus could search for subjects and study various examinable topics, access Wikipedia summaries offline as well as communicate with a teacher through the Ask A Teacher feature, by simply keying in the short code *291#.
So he registered for the service and would use it to revise during the school holidays, since he wasn’t allowed to have a mobile phone with him during the school term. Soon after beginning to use the platform, Erastus’ performance improved. Where once he would average 570 out of 800 marks, he was now scoring 630 marks.
His story is replicated across the country, where close to four million learners are using Shupavu291 to study, relying on the most basic of mobile phones to access curriculum-approved content throughout the year.
Benjamin Makai, Senior Manager within the Technology for Development (T4D) unit at Safaricom, understands the power of the mobile phone well – and he has every intention of leveraging its ubiquity and ease of use to create sustainable solutions to local challenges.
“Besides mobile services such as voice, SMS and data, we have to think of the pressing needs in society and how we can create solutions that address those needs. Most families have access to at least one mobile phone, and we can turn this into a powerful tool for social and economic development,” says Makai.
According to him, the mobile phone is the single most pervasive technology in Kenya, one that cuts across geographies, cultures, income levels and interestingly, reaching more people than basic amenities such as toilets, clean water and electricity.
Mobile phone penetration in Kenya stands at 95.1 per cent according to the Communications Authority of Kenya.
“What excites me is that the challenges within society will not end today or tomorrow, and because technology is always advancing, we can address these challenges as they arise, or even before they do. I see opportunities for us to continuously innovate solutions that can be placed within the reach of every Kenyan. There’s room for us to think big, and to achieve the SDGs,” he says.
He was referring to the Sustainable Development Goals, which are a set of 17 universal goals set by the United Nations General Assembly to reduce extreme poverty around the world. The SDGs are part of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and outline targets to be achieved in social and development issues such as poverty, education, hunger, gender equality, health, water and sanitation, the environment and justice among others.
“If you look at all the solutions we develop, we’ve identified some of the most pressing issues in society and are relying on partnerships to deliver solutions to these issues in line with the SDGs. We may not be experts in health or agriculture, but we do partner mapping, which allows us to bring on board partners who can complement what we are trying to achieve,” says Makai.
Finding the right match and confluence of goals before embarking on joint projects can present the biggest challenge to developing urgently needed solutions, but the reward is sweet, and not just for Makai, but for millions of people benefiting from solutions in education, healthcare, agriculture and economic empowerment.
But just how does this feed into Safaricom’s overall business strategy? After all, isn’t Safaricom’s core business the provision of voice, SMS, data and mobile money transfer and payments services?
“Our purpose as a company is to transform lives, and to do this we have embraced a shared value model that allows us to meet various needs in society while at the same time mine business opportunities,” said Makai. “This way, our partners’ programmes are realised, those in need of various solutions benefit, and Safaricom is able to realise its purpose,” he says.
It is this shared value approach to innovation that relies on mobile phones that has given birth to solutions such as Shupavu291, M-TIBA, DigiFarm and M-Salama.
M-TIBA for instance is a “health e-wallet” that allows subscribers to save and pay for healthcare using their mobile phones, and secures the funds such that they can only be spent on medical treatment.
“M-TIBA today has helped close to one million people set aside funds for their healthcare, which is critical in a country where health insurance is a luxury for majority of the population. To ensure that funds set aside are spent only on medical treatment, M-TIBA subscribers access healthcare at pre-identified partner clinics and hospitals. These facilities adhere to the internationally recognised SafeCare standards, which guarantee patients quality care,” says Makai.
A partnership between Safaricom, PharmAccess and Care Pay, M-TIBA was recently named a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum, joining global innovation elites such as Google and Twitter.
Another innovation, DigiFarm, has also received global accolades for its use of the mobile phone to provide crucial information, access to inputs and much-needed credit to Kenya’s smallholder farmers.
“A farmer who signs up indicates, for instance, the day that he or she plants a particular crop. The platform then offers tutorials on what the farmer should do at every stage up until harvest time, effectively offering extension services on the phone,” says Makai.
The service, which was launched a year ago and recently hit the one million subscriber mark, emerged the winner of the Developing World Technology category at the Fast Company’s 2018 World Changing Ideas Awards. A month later, DigiFarm scooped the Most Innovative Service at the inaugural East Africa Com Awards, before winning Gold at the 2018 Loeries Awards (Shared Value category) in August this year.
It’s an achievement that fills the T4D team with pride, but more importantly, one that points to the opportunities present to deliver solutions to socio-economic challenges using mobile technology.
“There is so much we can do. We are venturing into other areas such as disaster management for instance, because we need to be able to warn people of impending disasters so that they are either equipped to deal with them or can get to safety before disaster strikes. That’s why we developed M-Salama,” says Makai.
M-Salama is an SMS-based early warning tool developed in partnership with the Kenya Red Cross Society, which gives subscribers access to information on how to handle and manage natural disasters.
“Partnerships such as these are helping us not just save lives, but improve the lives of millions of people across the country. They’re also challenging us to see what more we can do, and at the moment we’re exploring the use of assistive technologies for the physically challenged, not only so that they can use our products and services with ease, but so that we can preserve their dignity while they do so,” says Makai.
“That’s what our shared value model is about. It’s not about philanthropy, it’s about developing solutions that benefit our partners, the communities we operate in and our business, through the mobile phone,” he adds.
So what does success look like for the T4D team?
“Our dream is to contribute towards achieving the SDGs. We believe that we can do this, and the mobile phone is the tool that will help us achieve those goals.”