Sri Lanka, Pakistan lead mobile phone reach in South Asia

Sri Lanka, Pakistan lead mobile phone reach in South Asia

We started the campaign of mBillionth Award for mobile content and applications with a simple message: “Mobiles have reached the masses, where are the meaningful content and services?" And we are talking about all of South Asia.

Have a look at this: Sri Lanka leads the region with 16.27 million mobiles reaching 81.35% of its population; Pakistan follows with 97.58 million mobiles covering 59.6% of the country’s population; India is almost halfway through with 584.32 million mobiles; Bhutan—47.8% (327,000 mobiles), Maldives—46% (0.14 million mobiles); Afghanistan and Bangladesh are almost there with 35% (12.9 million mobiles) and 52.43 million (34%). The laggard is Nepal, which has covered just 23.22%, making it to only 5.77 million people.

This high penetration of mobile phones has one common reason: We are an oral society, and our knowledge and capacity lie in communicating orally. We can be considered illiterate if you ask us to read and write, but we can not only consume a huge amount of content and services if you reach us orally, but we can also produce an abundance of content, information, knowledge and services if you ask us to contribute orally.

Mobiles have reached almost 100% of the population if we discount the age group below 15. Since 3G is here, mobile penetration could well be considered reliable, long-term and serious infrastructure. But mobiles have so far been used by the industry merely as a talking tool and VAS (value-added service)-based entertainment content rider. The governments, on the other hand, are way behind in figuring out ways to take meaningful content and services to the masses through the mobile.

The challenges of scalable model and services designed to reach the masses through the mobile phone are not easy, but we have no choice, and the sooner we do it, the better. At Digital Empowerment Foundation, we took this challenge to bring on one platform all kinds of mobile content and application providers, so that they get scale through bigger players in the industry, and through the government they get a chance to get integrated into bigger projects of state and national level.

We immediately realized through the nominations process that there are tremendous efforts undertaken by small start-ups, individuals and innovators to design and develop content, services and applications that could benefit the general masses in remote areas.

In the first leg, we got 100 nominations. More than 80% of them are companies that are unheard of, but their innovations are numbing. The surprise came from Pakistan—we have got five nominations so far, and at least 10 more have indicated they would send their nominations. I would like to share three of these nominations.

The See ‘n’ Report project has enabled citizen journalism, allowing people to send reports, photos and videos directly from their mobile phones as and when they witness a breaking story. “Our news engine aggregates similar stories and presents a unified view on the Internet," says Sharjeel Ahmad Qureshi, who is involved with the project.

Asim Fayaz sends us the nomination of ChOpaal—a free group SMS service. ChOpaal lets users create groups which others can voluntarily join. Group members can exchange messages with each other just by sending one message to chOpaal, which forwards it to the other group members for free.

Please also give attention to Gohar Sultan, who has developed Green, a platform different mobile applications can ride on. It works on even the cheapest mobile handset and makes a no-frills mobile look like a smartphone. At the moment, Green offers integration of WordPress, Twitter and Dictionary.

Next week, we will discuss some nominations from Sri Lanka, and in the meanwhile, please help us in getting more nominations before 31 May.

Osama Manzar is founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chairman of the mBillionth awards. Mint is a partner of the mBillionth awards.

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