In December 2012, I had the pleasure of travelling on assignment to two rural parts of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh for Mobile for Development, a corporate social responsibility (CSR) / not-for-profit initiative of the GSM Association (GSMA). My brief was to use visual media to tell the stories of eight individuals whose lives have been positively impacted by mobile technology. If you’d like to see some extracts from these stories, you’ll find one image and brief text from each of the eight in my January 2013 newsletter. Here, I’d like to talk about the work that GSMA Mobile for Development is doing on a more general level, and about how visual storytelling can be so useful for such a CSR undertaking.
Every time I’ve told a development practitioner (and I’ve been meeting many of late) that I’ve been shooting for the GSM Association, it’s met with a blank look. So I’ve explained that GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) is a mobile telephone system used all over the world, and that the GSMA is an an association of mobile operators and related companies that use this system. Simple. But what have they got to do with development?
Scalable innovations for the base of the pyramid
Through Mobile for Development, the GSMA has so far partnered with 35 mobile operators in order to provide over 50 services designed to improve the lives of tens of millions of people living at the bottom of the pyramid (earning under US$ 2.50 per day) in around 30 countries. Operating on a strictly not-for-profit basis, it’s a great example of impactful corporate social responsibility (CSR), which I like to describe as like an NGO operating from within the belly of a corporate.
I first came into contact with such innovations as GSMA Mobile for Development supports during 2011 when I was working in Kenya. Launched back in 2007, M-Pesa (pesa being Swahili for ‘money’) is a mobile phone-based money transfer service of the mobile operator Safaricom. I was struck by the sheer penetration of the Kenyan market that M-Pesa had achieved in just four years. Everyone seemed to be using it! “Just send me an M-Pesa” seemed to be a standard refrain whenever someone needed to get paid for something. GSMA Mobile for Development has been supporting the development of schemes like this in Kenya and elsewhere under its Mobile Money for the Unbanked (MMU) Programme.
MMU is perhaps the best-known of such innovations, and alongside Green Power for Mobile (promoting the development of renewable energies for mobile telecom networks) it has reached the most advanced state of maturity. The following diagram shows how GSMA Mobile for Development’s various initiatives have progressed so far:
It’s worth pointing out that these programmes are not just about ‘business giving back’ or simply ‘helping the poor’. The endgame involves scaling from CSR to purely commercial business models. As you can see from the table above, mAgri (which aims to improve the productivity and incomes of smallholder farmers in emerging markets) is nearing this stage. Five of the eight stories I told for GSMA Mobile for Development were focused on the impact of mKisan - one of the projects within this - at the level of the individual (kisan means ‘farmer’ in Hindi).
The value of visual storytelling in scaling innovations
The marketing team wanted these stories as they were gearing up for the GSMA Mobile World Congress, the largest annual event in the mobile industry, due to take place between 25th and 28th February 2013. This will be a huge opportunity for them to encourage other mobile operators to buy into this success story, bringing mAgri to new markets in other parts of the world. What better way to do this than through visual storytelling? The World Congress will be a mega event, with keynote speeches and panel discussions, an exhibition of new products and technology by 1,500 exhibitors and networking and deal-making happening all around. With so much going on, an impression must be made quickly before attention is lost. The deliverables I therefore provided were designed to let representatives of mobile companies get as close as possible to ‘meeting’ some of those whose lives have been touched by mKisan, and hear ‘from the horse’s mouth’ how their lives have changed for the better.
Sometimes, companies tell me, “we don’t want to advertise our CSR activities, that goes against our values”. I know what they’re getting at (and have written of this before with particular reference to a certain company that trumpeted how it was ‘creating happiness’). What I do is far more than about image, however. It is manifestly about feeding into and strengthening a process of making a positive difference. In GSMA Mobile for Development’s case, it was about helping them scale a successful programme that’s on track to becoming sustainable without outside support in several markets already. Elsewhere, it might be about training illiterate beneficiaries or securing stakeholder buy-in. The possibilities are actually endless.