Game-changing Technology Is Not Enough
“Mobile technology-driven solutions that aim to create social impact need to invest in customer-centric development and user training”.
First published on Stanford Social Innovation Review.
When Okey Okuzu first started using mobile technology to track health data in Nigeria, the system he used relied on texting via a simple mobile phone. The platform was a great first step, but it could record only limited information. Just a few years later, smartphones, tablets, and 3G mobile networks proliferated across the globe as the technology became less expensive and more accessible. Okuzu’s platform evolved into a simple app called CliniPAK, which helps doctors and nurses in primary health care centers collect, store, and retrieve patient data in a way that leads to better diagnoses and contributes to better health data for policy decisions. Tools like this can be game-changing for low-income patients, who comprise the majority of patients at primary health care centers in Nigeria, and can help poorer countries move into the 21st century more quickly.
But creating these game-changing solutions is not enough. Even if you create the best technology in the world, unless people understand it and see how it will make a difference in their own lives, they will not use it, and it will falter in its potential to alter the future of the people it aims to help. Following “customer centricity” principles—listening to honest, unbiased customer feedback—is a good start. And having an education and training plan in place for technology adoption will prevent new technologies from gathering dust on a shelf.
At the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE), we are working with three different social enterprises in Kenya, Nigeria, and the Philippines that are using mobile technology to help improve the economic, educational, and health outcomes in their own communities. Despite differences in geography and focus areas, their experiences with enabling clients in low-resource settings to adopt technology were strikingly similar and yielded several lessons for other enterprises looking to deploy technology-based solutions to global development challenges.
1. It takes significant time and resources to train people well.
Familiarity and comfort with technology varies by age, social and economic group, and income level. Often customers are scared of the technology because it is so new to them. The only way to overcome these barriers is increase their exposure to it, and that means time-intensive, interactive, serious training. Training sessions are often more effective if they are in-person with small peer support groups, or if there are customer service call lines that can aid further questions and ongoing training.
“However much training you think you need, triple it,” says Sam Rich, CEO of eLimu, an education software company in Kenya. eLimu builds interactive lessons to improve literacy, provides teacher training, and helps students prepare for exams through its tablet-based mobile app. The technology often intimidates teachers, many of whom are older and do not have a higher-education degree, so eLimu conducts three- to four-week, in-classroom training courses. It also encourages peer-to-peer learning through apps like WhatsApp and offers re-training modules to cement lessons learned in the initial training courses.
Okuzu, who is also the founder of InStrat Global Health Solutions (Instrat GHS), the social enterprise behind CliniPAK, also supports in-person training. When his team was designing CliniPAK, they knew it might be easier for the average person to learn how to use a tablet-based app than rather than a computer program, given that smartphones were nearly ubiquitous. But they still conducted regular, in-person training sessions in small groups and encouraged students to teach other as a way of reinforcing what they just learned.
Hapinoy, a social enterprise in the Philippines that helps mostly female micro-entrepreneurs improve their goods-and-services businesses, trains multiple members from each woman’s family on how to use its ecommerce app. This gives the women a support network at home, even after the trainers leave. Although Hapinoy is beginning to incorporate video training so that it can scale its workshops, co-founder Mark Ruiz says that personalized support is still essential to successful adoption.
2. Keep it local.
As their businesses grow, each of the three social enterprises spur local job creation. They hire locally—knowing they have to get the right staff and develop the training content for the cultural and geographic context in which they work. In Nigeria, for example, InStrat GHS recruits and hires people from within the specific regions where they work, rather than from other parts of Nigeria. Okuzu says this has been an important step in creating an environment that builds trust and facilitates learning. In some communities hiring locally is one way to more quickly establish trust between Instrat GHS and clinic staff, as clinic staff see the trainers as a source of reliable, helpful information.
These enterprises also strive to help customers see the important role they play in bringing the technology to life. For example, eLimu develops interactive lessons that feature Kenyan landscapes and voices so that the students see themselves in the materials and get excited about learning. Lessons on how to read and use numbers in English and Swahili might feature a Kenyan child walking through a marketplace in Nairobi or another city in Kenya, an East African family bonding, or different East African animals as protagonists.
3. Remember who the technology is meant to serve.
For any new enterprise to achieve truly sustainable social impact and scale, customers need to understand how the technology the enterprise produces benefits them. If customers clearly see how the technology will make their lives easier, help perform their jobs better or faster, or help grow their businesses, they are much more likely to choose to use the technology for the long term.
Health care workers that adopt Instrat GHS tablets, for example, record the same data as the paper forms they used before, but the technology makes the process faster and the data more accessible. In one instance, CliniPAK even helped stem a methanol poisoning outbreak. Health care workers saw the direct link between technology and better patient care.
The beauty of advanced technologies is that they are easier to customize than printed documents or older, more static technologies, and can therefore better serve their customers. eLimu, for example, is currently working with teachers through a program that provides three to four weeks of hands-on tablet and software training, and 12 months of ongoing support. In the last 6 months alone, the teachers have used eLimu and multimedia material to create more than 200 new lessons. In this way, teachers see that technology is not a means of cutting them out, but a way of enabling them to become better teachers.
4. There are no silver bullets.
Social enterprises everywhere face obstacles to growth, but it is particularly difficult to scale in many emerging markets. Many traditional investors and banks see enterprises in these markets as too risky. Foundations, bilateral aid organizations, and corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs that offer early-stage support therefore play an important role. Qualcomm’s CSR initiative, Qualcomm Wireless Reach, for example, stepped in to provide grant funding and technical expertise to help get the social enterprises we’ve mentioned here grow and expand their impact.
Of course a variety of factors will influence the success of any technology solution that aims to create social impact. Supportive policies, infrastructure, culture, and institutions are also hugely important. But customer-centric development and training should never be afterthoughts. They should be central to the planning and adoption process.