Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Making handsets work for society

Published in May-Jun 2014

How low cost handsets are opening up socio-economic opportunities.

Mobile phones have become slimmer, more sophisticated, and most importantly, more affordable, than ever before (new phones, even from recognised brands, are now available for as little as Rs 2,000). Consequently, we are seeing even lower price points in the secondary market of used phones and the overall result has been an enormous increase in cellular penetration. Added to this, the successful spread of mobile banking services (Easypaisa, Mobicash and Timepey among others) has demonstrated the value of these services in bringing about improvements in the lives of the less privileged segments of society.

In advanced markets the internet has become the ubiquitous channel to do almost everything – from paying bills to making reservations and accessing information. However, compared to these markets, internet penetration in Pakistan is still limited, primarily because our social indicators remain very low. So that although it does seem that everyone has internet connectivity in the major cities, this is far from true for the rural population and low income segments.

Yet, over the years a range of solutions have evolved and today even an ordinary mobile phone with only call and SMS functions has become a ‘window’ to the internet and e-services. In fact, neither do the phones have to be ‘smart’ nor does the user need to have access to the internet to enjoy the benefit of internet-based services.

For example, SMS-based queries are processed via mobile operators on different servers and can be treated in a way similar to any internet-based query or transaction. For ordinary users, this has been a powerful enabler in connecting them to the internet. The opportunities in this domain appear to be endless as manifested by the host of value added services offered by the telecom companies. Here are five examples.

  1. By calling Ufone’s UKissan helpline, users can access information on current crop prices (mandi alerts), prevailing weather conditions as well as on specific topics such as poultry or fruit farming and agricultural crops.

  2. Ufone Examiner is a SMS-based service that offers students the opportunity to test how well prepared they are for an exam on any subject at secondary and higher secondary school level.

  3. Telenor’s Talkshawk Social Services helpline offers users access to qualified lawyers, doctors or education counsellors and other professionals.

  4. The initiative by the Excise and Taxation Department of the Punjab Government whereby users could check their vehicle registration information via SMS was very successful and the concept was extended to include all registration information and tax payment details.

  5. Mobile Product Authentication is an initiative by Sproxil that has been successfully implemented in Nigeria (there are now plans to extend this to other African and South Asian markets). The service enables people to authenticate their medication by sending the printed code of the packing via SMS.

The great benefit here is the ability to counteract counterfeit medicines.

Furthermore, SMS advertising has proved to be highly productive for small businesses in Pakistan. Although this method may generate only a few leads, it remains a cost effective platform due to the decreasing costs of SMS packages and increasing mobile penetration – better results can be achieved with a more focused approach by keeping (with their permission) and then segmenting customer data. This can be used to manage social awareness campaigns in rural and low income areas. For example, polio vaccination campaign messages can be sent via SMS to parents with young children. (This will require effort in terms of collecting data but it is certainly worth it.)

These examples are based on the premise of a constantly growing mobile user base in Pakistan, a likely prospect given the increased affordability of mobile handsets. A market of 100 million plus mobile phone users now requires even more innovative solutions as the opportunities are endless.

Muhammad Talha Salam is a faculty member at FAST School of Management, Lahore.