Startups should adapt to the developing world, not ignore it

In our smartphone-dependent lives, it’s hard to imagine getting by with a feature phone. But in developing countries, those phones have become lifelines that can handle a money transaction or goods order, and companies are continually finding new uses for them.

Frog’s vice president of creative Fabio Sergio and UNICEF Innovation Unit co-founder Erica Kochi made the case at the Gigaom Roadmap conference Wednesday that feature phone users cannot be ignored because they represent the fastest-growing markets in the world. And when companies enter those markets, they should apply the startup model of thinking big from the beginning, while also maintaining a conscience.

“There is clearly a must in what we are talking about, and then there is a should or a could,” Sergio said. “We should embrace the social must.”

Sergio noted that in many countries residents don’t have a government they can trust. They might not have a birth certificate or a formal bank. Instead, brands are stepping in as trusted service providers. Kochi cited that 43 percent of Kenya’s GDP flows not through a traditional banking system, but through M-Pesa, a money transfer service launched by mobile provider Vodafone.

These kinds of systems will require mobile developers to completely rethink how they go about their jobs. But when they do, they will find huge opportunity.

“For most people in the world, constant electricity is not a given at all. In the most extreme cases, they’re paying a tremendous amount of their daily wage for power,” Kochi said. “I think we’ll see the widespread adoption of smart phones. But when you’re thinking about the services that you put on top of them and that they’re so data hungry, I think we’re going to hit a major barrier, not just on battery life, but how we design apps.”

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