When Smartphones Aren’t Smart: The Challenges of Social Innovation Delivery in Emerging Market Countries
Recently, I attended a startup accelerator pitch competition in Kigali where10 teams pitched business solutions to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) challenges faced by Rwandan youth. The top four teams received funding to further develop their ideas. In a country with a young population — 77% of the population is under 25 — and one of the highest fertility rates in Africa — 4.6 children born to every woman — youth SRH interventions are needed, and a pitch competition that encourages local youth to design these solutions is welcome. However, only some of the solutions presented stand much of a chance of reaching their target customers or users.
Some of the solutions were completely analog — a comic book, a magazine, an ice cream shop, and a television show — all addressing issues related to SRH. Others offered a mix of ways to reach Rwandan youth — through smartphones, feature phones, or the web. Some of the contestants, including one winner, pitched smartphone apps. Those, to me, illustrate a mismatch between the solutions that people want to design and the solutions that will reach the people who need them most.
Rwanda has a 78% mobile phone penetration rate, but only 35% of the population has internet access via smartphone or web. Even young people who have their own mobile phones cannot use them for a substantial portion of their day, as public primary and secondary schools do not allow the phones on campus. I was heartened to see a leader of an influential local organization make this exact point to the contestants pitching high-tech solutions. Yes, designing smartphone apps to solve problems is considered sexy and likely to secure funding, both in the developed and in the developing world. But designing a product or service that your target market can’t access or use, however well-intentioned, is at best tone-deaf.
The number one rule of sales is know your customer. It applies whether your mission is to maximize shareholder profit or to solve a social problem, and it applies across all geographies. At SHE, a social enterprise providing menstrual hygiene solutions to low-income, rural girls and women, we have made sure that we take girls’ input into consideration for everything we do. Any initiative that doesn’t reach low-income, rural girls and women would be a waste of our time and effort. The ability to listen to customers and match solutions with needs is essential to the progress both of a social enterprise and of its customers.
Right now there is buzz in low- and middle-income countries around local solutions to local problems. However, local isn’t enough. The teams who pitched at the competition I attended were all Rwandan youth, designing solutions for other Rwandan youth. And yet some still created apps that will only reach a small minority of their intended beneficiaries — the wealthiest and most privileged segment. It is quite possible that the people offering these solutions are from that same segment of the population and while many major cities in Africa have developed at breakneck pace, rural areas, where the majority of the population lives, have not kept up. In forming solutions, it is crucial to involve those most in need of those solutions — those with lived experience of the problems.
Rwanda, specifically, has been positioning itself as an emerging hub for business, startups, and technology. With 7.4% GDP growth and a burgeoning “Made in Rwanda” campaign, it’s the 56th best country in the world for doing business, and the fifth best in Africa. The government has formed an ICT authority, is building out a fiber optic network, and has opened spaces such as Kigali Innovation Village and Fab Lab, to promote innovation. Companies have located here to use drones to deliver blood and medical supplies, and to build affordable laptops. Thus it makes sense that idealistic Rwandan youth want to pitch smartphone apps and other high-tech solutions to address their aspirational goals. But it’s not enough to say that a rising tide lifts all boats.
Many Rwandan youth lack internet access not due to the quality of the network connection where they live but due to the prices of the devices required to connect. The cheapest smartphone available costs around 40,000 Rwandan Francs (equivalent to around 50 US dollars). This is out of reach for the 39% of the population living on $2/day or less. Installing cable for broadband internet access won’t make those devices more affordable. Companies here in Rwanda and elsewhere have devised creative solutions for financing products such as solar home systems and clean cookstoves, partnering with microfinance institutions to set up installment payment plans. Why shouldn’t mobile phones be next? If Rwanda insists on applying high-tech solutions to social problems, first the hardware must be within the people’s reach.
Ultimately, in order to solve social problems in developing countries, innovators must put themselves in their customers’ shoes. Rather than designing solutions that speak to aspirational goals and expecting customers to alter their lives to use them, we need to design solutions that meet customers where they are, or remove the bottlenecks that stand in their way.
 Rwanda Ministry of Health. Adolescent Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights Policy 2011–2015. Kigali: 2015.
 Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority. Statistics and Tariff Information in Telecom, Media, and Postal Service as of the Third Quarter 2016. Kigali: 2016.
 World Bank. Doing Business in Rwanda. Washington, DC: 2016. Accessed at: http://www.doingbusiness.org/data/exploreeconomies/rwanda on 4 March 2017.
 National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda (NISR). Statistical Yearbook, 2015 Edition. Kigali: November 2015.