The great cliché, the one we've all heard from pundits, techies, and do-gooders, is that mobile phones are changing Africa. As it turns out, the cliché is true. The continent is adopting mobile phone use—everything from cheap Nokia dumbphones to the latest iPhone—at an unprecedented rate. This also means new opportunities for businesspeople and development organizations who want to take advantage of a changing landscape.
One example of this is the product GeoPoll, a new polling system designed for market research and surveys in Africa (and for that matter, any other region where most phones aren't yet Internet-connected). Surveys can be targeted on a granular level for specific demographics and geographies; the company owns a database of 50 million people worldwide living in developing economies. Alongside the database of 50 million phone numbers to contact, GeoPoll can also perform surveys by calling any working mobile number.
GeoPoll is a product from Mobile Accord, an organization which "creates innovative mobile services for clients around the world." Founder James Eberhard told Co.Exist that the root of the firm's market research product came from dissatisfaction with conventional polling in Africa.
"Polling [there] is currently done with paper and pencil, and we want to change that. When we spoke with the World Bank [one of Mobile Accord's clients], they said it was hard to conduct surveys in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was taking them 18 months to reach 2,500 people, which is too long. We said there had to be a better way to do it."
The organization's database is what they hope will attract clients: Tens of millions of names, phone numbers, and basic demographic information of ordinary people throughout the Global South. As a proof of concept, GeoPoll conducted a SMS text message poll of more than 100,000 Congoleses' life priorities in a single day and pushed the results to the web. The results, pulled from cities and towns throughout the Democratic Republic of the Congo, show detailed French-language descriptions of hopes and worries. Although the website takes a bit of time to fetch results, the long answers are a fascinating mix of terse SMS replies and longer, written out complaints and raves.
Eberhard hopes that the platform will make polling and research easier in countries with developing infrastructure. One example he cited in our conversation was Kenya, where upwards of $750 million is invested into domestic advertising each year, but where data sets for market research are still in their infancy. Pollsters operating in Kenya lack access to the open marketplace of names and numbers that are commonplace in more industrialized economies. Eberhard noted that these poor data sets also make the work of aid organizations much more difficult.
In Kenya, GeoPoll conducted a poll which demonstrates the true consumer power of growing economies. Out of 557 respondents contacted over a single day in both urban and rural communities, 34% use social networking sites and more than 25% use mobile money, emerging form of payment in which mobile phone minutes are used as a de-facto currency. The poll also shows heavy supermarket and Internet use among contactees.
So far, GeoPoll has conducted surveys via mobile device in 13 countries, collecting approximately 130,000 surveys for the United Nations' MyWorld project.