The science pioneer and ‘visionary’ Jaron Lanier has recently published “Who Owns The Future” which discusses the Internet and its detrimental impact on job and wealth creation. The book wages war on digital utopianism and highlights the way in which the Internet threatens to destroy the global middle class by eroding jobs, wealth and the various “levees” that give people stability. In the prelude of the book, he offers the example:
“Here’s a current example of the challenge we face. At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. They even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only 13 people. Where did all those jobs disappear? And what happened to the wealth that all those middle-class jobs created?”
Lanier, however, still does see the potential in digital technology but just wants it reoriented away from its main role so far, which involves “spying” on citizens, creating a winner-take-all society and eroding professions. I would stress the role in mobile technology in the developing world and its positive impact on business – both on the employee and employer side of the spectrum. With rising unemployment an issue in both the developed and developing world, mobile solutions have the potential to create jobs, help employees and save companies money. Whether it is mobile monitoring of the supply chain or using a mobile phone to pay employees’ wages, the potential for positively transforming the workplace in developing markets is significant.
I have highlighted a few areas in which mobile technology can and currently is having a positive impact on the workforce in the developing world, from a societal level to a personal one.
Helping employees find a Job
Mobile devices can act as mass communication tool for potential recruiters in looking for employees. Job Finder is a subscription-based service designed to link workers to jobs using an SMS-based platform and works on all mobile devices. The Job Finder service compares the job and worker profiles and sends SMS alerts to workers when a suitable job opportunity arises. This simple SMS tool, which suits the African continent where the feature phone is still ever-present, is a cost-effective way of bring employers and employees together.
Mobile Education and mLearning
On the education front, Mobile devices can be used to provide primary school teachers with regular updates on educational content to assist with classroom teaching. A scheme in Nigeria will be delivered by UNESCO and does exactly this. It opens up a far-reaching, easy to implement and cost effective mobile educational tool to teachers allowing them to run their classroom programmes more effectively.
On the employment side, mLearning can deliver basic skills and job-related training via a mobile device by voice, SMS or USSD. The primary audience would be employed workers, where mLearning could offer specific job-related training and updates around product knowledge or health and safety issues. Well prepared and delivered mobile training could enable more people to access education, while reducing the need for costly training facilities. Simple SMS based services give workers a sense of empowerment, independence and improve engagement with the company. As smartphones begin to replace basic phones in the developing world, the mobile training on offer is likely to become a more interactive, one-to-one experience.
Payroll and Microfinance
Microfinance is the provision of financial services to micro-entrepreneurs and small businesses that lack access to banking and related services due to the high transaction costs associated with serving such clients. The rise of the microfinance industry has been driven by a simple premise; get capital into the hands of those entrepreneurs who are cash starved and don’t have access to traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ financial institutions. The development of microfinance itself has been hugely beneficial in stimulating small business growth in parts of Africa and Asia.
mPayroll is an extension of microfinance and is a reliable way of using mobile technology to make secure, cost-effective wage payments to ‘unbanked’ workers, who continue to make up the vast majority of the workforce in the developing world. Their salary can then be delivered securely direct to a mobile wallet such as Vodafone’s M-Pesa. This offers the security that workers in developing countries often need and ensures they are paid the full amount by preventing their seniors siphoning off ‘tips’, which can of course be a huge problem in corrupt businesses.
Worker Panels gathers anonymous data about working conditions directly from workers to enhance visibility across global supply chains. The Worker Panel solution can be used on a basic mobile device at low cost. An SMS/instant message questionnaire would be used to ask workers about their working conditions, rates of pay, concerns and general feelings about their job.
The system could potentially be used by factory management to collect feedback from their workers and allow two-way communication so that management could also send alerts and information back to workers, thus improving trust and transparency. The mobile device will serve as a tool of empowerment and is likely to open up employment-focused social networks and stimulate workers’ rights groups. In a continent like Africa, massively diverse with companies and employees often separated by huge distances, the mobile tool will act as an essential portal to access information and act collectively on workers’ rights. The mobile device could even eventually act as a trade union tool.
Tech Cities – job creation
There is a new technology movement in Africa, with mobile at the centre. Cities like Cape Town, Accra and Nairobi are vying for the top position as Africa’s central innovation and technological hub. This has created thousands of job across the continent and is also providing the impetus for countless schools and universities. Kenya’s “Silicon Savannah” has recently begun construction in Konza City, about 60 miles south of Nairobi and aims to be Africa’s most modern city with 200,000 jobs created by completion in 2017. Projects like Micorsoft’s iHub provide resources for technologically minded entrepreneurs and act as meeting points for young, ambitious Africans.
Despite the need for a healthy debate around the Internet and is potential corrosive effect on wealth and jobs, it should also be highlighted ways in which mobile technology is playing a decisive and positive role in stimulating employment and helping workers in the developing world.