On February 20, Harvard Business School (HBS) hosted its eleventh annual “Africa Business Conference,” a collection of high-profile discussions, many of which focused on the centrality of telecommunications, mobile banking, and new media in African development.  On February 27, Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) held its “Policy Making in a Digital World” conference featuring luminaries such as Jonathan Zittrain, co-Founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, panelists from the U.S. Department of State, and innovators from new platforms such as Ushahidi that enable crowd-sourced crisis mapping via SMS, and were instrumental to saving lives in Haiti.

Topics ranged from private equity in Africa to crisis response, but the commonality across both events for managers and innovators focused on international development was that new technology –open-source but coordinated and non-redundant, crowd-sourced platforms– is central to progress.  That high mobile penetration makes it the platform of choice is no novel news.  However, such conferences shed light on the empirics of how firms are innovating today, and raise important issues such as the fact that poor coverage and mobile promotions from competing networks impel many in Africa to own more than one phone, eroding the presumed mobile penetration associated with a number like 4 billion cell phones.

As I highlight in a Yale Journal of International Affairs article entitled, “Bringing Africa Online: Leveraging Technology to Empower Entrepreneurs,”, there are a number of challenges today.  The HBS conference focused on one such issue in that current transaction platforms insufficiently enable informed African consumers to access global retail outlets, and preclude entrepreneurs from providing goods on the world stage.  Online payment platforms limit access to many in emerging markets, and this impacts both consumers who want access to global providers, and retailers who cannot accept payments, and cannot fully leverage international promotion online. 

Peter Ojo, CEO of Virtual Terminal Network (VTN), described how his service empowers Nigerian consumers by enabling GSM mobile transactions from all 36 states.  Nigerian businesses can utilize VTN to accept mobile payments from consumers, and over 3,000 Nigerian businesses have adopted this platform.  Whereas PayPal and Google Checkout are cumbersome and ineffective on the continent due to legal and payment restrictions, VTN streamlines transaction costs for Nigerian businesses while concurrently offering access to domestic consumers.  Cost savings can inspire profit re-investment, leading to growth and employment.

As mobile is still the device of choice in Africa, mobile banking and mobile payment facilitation is a natural extension to what VTN offers in Nigeria.  While lacking the patina of fellow HBS panelists, young Benjamin Lyon, Executive Director of Frontline SMS, discussed his innovative company that facilitates institutional mobile transaction capabilities.  Frontline SMS is focused on helping provide back-end infrastructure that enables microfinance institutions to manage the logistics of frequent and voluminous inflow of mobile payments. 

At Columbia University SIPA, Ushahidi Director of Crisis Mapping and Strategic Partnerships, Patrick Meier, spoke on the groundbreaking humanitarian management applications for crowd-sourced mobile response.  Ushahidi, which means “witness” or “testimony” in Swahili, is a Kenyan organization supported by the Omidyar Network that focuses on crowd-sourced crisis mapping.  Following the earthquake in Haiti, Ushahidi –a network of volunteers who had undergone brief training– scoured a diverse array of media, from YouTube, UN reports, local radio in Creole and French, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr to collect instant on-the-ground information from Haiti, map, tag, and geo-code it with GPS coordinates for immediate search and rescue application.  Whereas official mobilization took days, technology mobilization took hours, and within a week Ushahidi had been featured on CNN, referenced by Secretary of State Clinton, and thanked from the decks of a US Aircraft Carrier, by Marine commanders, and aid volunteers.

Meier stressed coordinated open-source development, wherein creation can happen without proprietary impediment, but wherein duplication is minimized, improving the consolidation of actionable information.  He stressed real-time, visual presentation of information, and audience-attuned presentation.  In the case of crisis response, GPS coordinates drive how teams are dispatched and lives saved.

On October 1-3, 2010 the International Conference on Crisis Mapping, focused on “Haiti, Chile and Beyond” will take place in Boston, Massachusetts, and will seek to expand on platforms that crowd-source local information via SMS, and relay actionable “tagged” information in real-time, GPS geo-coded maps.  A demand-driven, volunteer network of organizations, the conference will be a call for input.

Whether in expanding financial services access to the un-banked in Africa, improving access to payments platforms to enable consumers and entrepreneurs seeking global online markets, or responding to crisis, mobile is on call.  Many-to-many platforms that are developed open-source, and made available to all with the caveats of coordination, can continue to build upon crowd-source local knowledge.  Repackaged in intuitive, actionable ways, its rapid response availability and ease of use will ultimately necessitate its adoption for pragmatists and humanists, a statement that was evident at Harvard and Columbia, and now echoed at Stanford.