While many in the developed world have begun to look down on the SMS as a somewhat outdated form of communicating – preferring instead to use instant messaging tools such as WhatsApp and BBM –SMS is playing an increasingly powerful role in developing countries where Internet access is either patchy or simply non-existent.
African countries, including South Africa, provide some of the most pertinent examples of SMS being used as a surrogate for the Internet for socio-economic development programmes or commercial purposes. This is especially the case in under-serviced areas where people still do not have access to the Internet either because they cannot afford it or the infrastructure is not yet in place. Due to the high mobile phone penetration rates in African countries, and because every mobile is capable of sending and receiving an SMS, SMS communications can be hugely effective in reaching development programme beneficiaries or low-income customers who would otherwise be considered ‘unconnected’ or unreachable via social media or email.
There are numerous examples of the transformative potential of the SMS. Let’s start with agriculture, an industry that is still the core economic driver in many regions. Before the SMS, farmers based in remote areas would have to cart all of their produce off to market, where they would then be forced to negotiate on price. They would always be at a disadvantage, faced with the prospect of transporting unsold produce back to the farm. However, using SMS as a market access tool, farmers are now able to fix prices before they get to market, and can adjust the amount of produce they take to market accordingly.
In the healthcare sector, SMS is being relied upon for patient compliance purposes to support the delivery healthcare, for example, as a tool to remind people to take their chronic medication on time. Many pharmacies in African countries use SMS to keep track of stock and prevent stock shortages.
In the commercial sector, financial services companies such as banks are leveraging SMS as a means of authentication when accessing online services. Some banks and micro-financing companies are working with mobile network providers as a way to send money cheaply and securely using mobile phones. Safaricom in Kenya and Vodacom South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda, for example, have been hugely successful with platforms such as M-Pesa, which uses SMS to process and confirm payments and peer-to-peer transactions.
On the political front, SMS has become an important monitoring tool during national elections, empowering citizens to report incidences of abuse or violence using anonymous SMS messages. A similar process is used for supporting civil society. In South Africa citizens can report crime by sending an anonymous SMS to Crime Line, which has proven to be an immensely useful platform for crime prevention.
Arguably one of the most critical roles that SMS can play – particularly in Africa – is in enhancing education and fostering higher levels of literacy. SMS forces users to be able to write and communicate using a common language. It also makes communication between people with hearing or speech disabilities a possibility.
In Uganda, for example, an organisation has been using mobile phones in specially designed education programmes to help deaf children communicate. This is a major development, because in many developing countries children who are deaf don’t have access to special education, technology or even signs language teaching. By teaching deaf children to use SMS educators can integrate learners with impaired hearing into the classroom settings and open up entirely new channels of communication, boosting self-esteem and promoting social inclusion.
Finally, the SMS is also being used as a way to communicate before, during and after emergencies or national disasters.
While universal access to the Internet must always be the ultimate goal for social and economic development, we should not underestimate the power of the SMS as a tool to bridge the connectivity divide in those countries still to achieve full Internet access. Yet, SMS technology will not be replaced by the Internet, rather SMS communications work along with the increasing penetration of the Internet in developing countries to enhance services to citizens and consumers. In some cases, by limiting the amount of information broadcasted to ensure that only the important data is communicated, the fact that SMS is ubiquitous, and delivered nearly instantaneously, SMS can even be considered more effective and efficient than online services.
Many enterprising minds have recognised the commercial potential of the SMS in the developing world. A venture by Mobile Accord called GeoPoll, for one, aims to use SMS to research the tastes and opinions of billions of people unreachable through other communications channels. In its first SMS poll in 2010, GeoPoll surveyed 4 million people in the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of the Congo. The market company recently raised a $6.6 million Series A funding round from private investors, bringing its total funding to $11.6 million.