Empowering the Ultra Poor with Mobile Technologies

Speaking of the ubiquity of mobile phones, want to hear a crazy fact? Mobile phones are more common than toilets in India.

Almost 45% of the population there have mobile phones, while only 31% have access to improved sanitation. This includes many of the ultra poor in India.

If you haven’t heard the term before, the ultra poor are defined as “receiving less than 80 percent of minimum caloric intake whilst spending more than 80% of income on food” by Michael Lipton (quote from Wikipedia). They are the poorest of the poor.

Funny how they have mobile phones then, huh? This is no accident. There has been a concerted effort to bring mobile technologies to the masses. The result is a dramatic shift in knowledge access. In a world where “you can tell the rich from the poor by their internet connections,” mobile technologies are becoming a great equalizer.

Building upon insights such as this, Kamael Sugrim co-founded the non-profit mPowering. She took her background in finance & marketing, Stanford MBA, experience with Salesforce (CRM) & SAP (SAP), and witty insight, and turned it upside-down, realizing she would rather follow her passions than to remain in corporate America. Thus, mPowering. As they state on their website:

We are a non-profit organization dedicated to assisting the world’s poor in their journey out of poverty. Through mobile technology and true out-of-the-box thinking, we give individuals and families the power to change their lives – forever.

Their first step has been to create mobile apps that harness the incentives of location-based gaming.

I know. Definitely out-of-the-box, huh? When I think of helping the ultra poor with mobile technologies, that’s the last thing I think of too. But it sometimes takes a radical new idea to break an established “norm” such as extreme poverty.

Here’s what Sugrim and team have done so far:

They’ve created a mobile app – Android (GOOG) at the moment – that allows children to check-in when they’re at school. Each check-in awards them some points that can be redeemed later at a food & clothing distribution center. The idea is to encourage these children to go to school, get an education, and still “earn” the basic necessities for their family. It’s a step above merely just giving the food & clothing to these families.

With the donations mPowering receives, they also give out free mobile phones to these ultra poor families, ensuring that all of them have access to this program.

Will it work? I don’t know, but this is just the start. They’ve got big plans and a motivated team. I’m sure they’ll experiment with all kinds of interesting, out-of-the-box ideas.

Intrigued? They’re taking donations right now. I’m sure they’ll be open to volunteers and fresh ideas too. Now that they’ve gotten mobile phones into the hands of their initial target group, they’ve got a platform from which to try new things.

They are initially targeting Orissa, the poorest region in India, though they plan on expanding to all countries where there is a need. Sugrim is over in Orissa this very moment, blogging, tweeting, posting, and recording videos of her travels. Follow along to see first-hand how they’re empowering the ultra poor and where they’ll go next. I’m following not just because I support their cause, but because I’m curious about which technologies they’re going to use next. Cloud computing and the ultra poor? Chatroulette for the ultra poor? Oh, the possibilities!

Author: Mike Lee

An idealistic realist, humanistic technologist & constant student.