Global Forum: Mobile solutions in emerging markets

June 27, 2010: 8:37 AM ET

Technology leaders and entrepreneurs are tackling some of the biggest challenges in emerging markets at the Global Forum conference in South Africa.

by Jon Fortt

Land Rovers and cell phones can bring banking to the rural poor in Kenya. Through text messaging, a willing workforce in East Africa is helping Google to tag YouTube videos. And a focus on efficiency has led doctors in India to perform more than ten times as many cataract surgeries per month as their U.S. counterparts, at a far lower cost.

These were a few of the stories that came to light in the Voices session on the opening night of Global Forum, a 15-minute interlude where attendees got a sense of the ways the thinkers are tackling problems. James Mwangi, CEO of Equity Bank, shared that he's seeing 10,000 accounts opening per day, providing further evidence that "you can bank the poor and make a capital gain."

Nathan Eagle, CEO of txteagle, said workers using his service are now handling hundreds of thousands of individual tasks per day, including audio transcriptions for database software company Oracle. And Suresh Vaswani, co-CEO of the IT business at Wipro, also shared how mobile phones are transforming rural commerce in India, with farmers able to get weather reports, market prices and banking services through their phones.

Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and current president of Realizing Rights, closed the session with an appeal: In large events like the World Cup that's now commanding the stage in South Africa, small traders and merchants are often swept aside to clear the view for TV cameras and make room for official sponsors. In the future, she said, we must figure out ways to make room for them – or risk exacerbating the gap between the haves and have-nots.

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