KIRAN MATHUR MOHAMMED
Beyond buzzwords, why are there so few concrete examples of profitable indigenous innovation?
Innovative companies are sustained by the size of the market. Too many still cannot cross the digital divide. The good news is that there is considerable opportunity to expand the local market – if we improve literacy, access, finance and culture.
First, the Adult Literacy Tutors Association (ALTA) and the University of the West Indies have found that 23 per cent of the population cannot read well enough to read a newspaper headline, a medicine label…far less content in an app. Computer literacy, though rising, is even lower.
But we know that the most effective way to treat with this is in childhood. UNESCO pilot programmes like Jamaica’s Home Visit programme have demonstrated that the consistently effective way to improve children’s literacy is to visit parents and provide them with parenting and educational tools. In parallel, the government can expand funding to high-impact non-profits like ALTA to teach adults to read.
Then there is access. Even though almost everyone has a mobile phone, not all are smartphones. Many people cannot or do not pay for mobile data that allows access to the internet. According to Hootsuite and We Are Social, more than 31 per cent of mobile users still had no mobile internet access as of January 2017.
There is a quick way to reduce costs and increase access. Telecommunications operators transmit data using a set number of frequencies allocated by the Telecommunications Authority (TATT). Certain higher frequencies are less efficient for transmitting data, as they require more cell towers to reach the same coverage area as lower frequencies. Right now, the authority has been holding off on allocating the lower 700MHZ frequency in the hope of attracting a third telecom to TT. That has meant that TSTT and Digicel have had to use costlier higher frequencies.
The authority has hoped for more competition. But the chances of a third operator entering are slim. Indeed, when Carlos Slim and America Movil entered Jamaica as a third operator, even their deep pockets could not help. The assets ended up being sold to Digicel. Telecoms are an investment-heavy business with tight margins that require a certain level of volume to become worthwhile. TT has a much smaller population than Jamaica, so we are even less likely to be able to support a third operator. Given this, the best way for TATT to improve access is to allocate the frequencies that they have already to the existing operators.
The Government can also expand its Wifi initiative. They have made a good start with 13 hotspots. There is no reason not to be ambitious. Within a few years, poorer Mexico has invested in 1.6 million free hotspots. The big tech companies are funding these efforts as well – it is in their interest. We can reach out to a Facebook or Google to do the same here. Compared to their projects in India or Mexico, the investment would be trivial.
Next, assuming you know how to use a phone and can access data, most apps or online services require credit cards, which only about 15 per cent of the population have – based on Central Bank statistics. Scotiabank last week released a card that can be used for online transactions. The other banks should follow suit. This will considerably increase access for those without a credit card.
Local startup Wipay has tried to get around this by allowing people to buy cash vouchers that they can use online with accepting merchants.
Of course, we are often wary of entrusting our payment or personal information to technological platforms. We don’t know who they are and feel that without a personal face, there can be little chance of redress if things go wrong or of developing personal relationships to get better service.
Change can often be perceived as the loss of stability. Professors Sven Laumer and Andreas Eckhardt have surveyed the research on psychological resistance to technology. Interacting with technology for the first time can inspire feelings of helplessness and loss of control, particularly if it is not intuitive to use.
In this environment, user interfaces must be designed to be as simple as possible to help inspire comfort and trust in users.
At the same time, any outreach campaign must take our culture into account. Senior telecom industry executive Rakesh Goswami described how in India, it is quite normal to see pundits and religious leaders pressed into service to build trust with potential users.
But maybe that should not be so strange. Technology can be miraculous in its potential. We can seize that; and carry everyone along to share the benefits.
Kiran Mathur Mohammed is a social entrepreneur, economist and businessman. He is a former banker, and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh