Mobile World Congress & Emerging Markets

By Malaika Judd  |  January 20, 2014


It was my first time attending Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. According to GSMA’s MWC website, last year saw 72.000 attendees and held over 1,700 exhibits and I’m guessing that 2014 probably topped those stats. So while one could imagine finding the congress overwhelming, I actually found it underwhelming. Especially as a representative from emerging markets.

This is not to imply that GSMA did a bad job or there wasn’t enough to keep me busy and entertained throughout the 4 days of the congress. In fact, as far as tech conventions go – MWC was pretty impressive.

My disappointment came from the seminars and conference sessions on emerging markets. Why is it that every time we talk about emerging markets, its about helping the BoP and saving the women and children? Why not mention the innovative integrated solutions of mobile money and bitcoins? Or the impressive growth of microfinanced innovation through mobile money? Or the number of new mobile apps released each year in emerging markets? Even when platforms for monetizing these apps (in-app purchases?) aren’t available yet! Instead I was hearing stories about how women in small villages in India were now able to contact doctors due to extended mobile penetration and cheaper phones. Of course this is important. But not everything in emerging markets is a sad story about lack of access and resources. If we continue to only focus on the social enterprise and save the world aspects of mobile technology in these regions, we’re going to miss the impressive, disruptive, and new age technology that IS coming out of these regions.

But I’m not here to complain. Actually, I wanted to take this post to highlight some of the interesting and impressive things I learned at MWC.

Some highlights:

The seminar on Mobile Money for the Unbanked was great. Nice research is coming out of GSMA that captures the progress year on year for mobile money, mobile insurance, and mobile credit and savings globally. Some facts from this year’s report:

  • There were over 60 million active mobile money accounts in 2013
  • We see significant growth in bulk payment products using mobile money – with bulk payments seeing a annual growth rate of 617%
  • 9 markets (majority in Sub-Saharan Africa) currently have more mobile money accounts than bank accounts
  • 44 markets have more mobile money outlets than bank ATMs
  • There are 219 different mobile money services stretching across 84 different countries

Larissa Welti from Transfer in Mexico talk about the need to integrate a solution for individuals to pay merchants directly with mobile money. Good thing Kopo Kopo was in the room.

In “Emerging Markets – Bringing the World Online”, Chris Weasler from (the Facebook led initiative for affordable internet) focused on the barriers to entry for Facebook to quickly penetrate the market. Facebook has had to go back and redesign the app to be lighter weight, consume less data, use less battery, work faster on 2G networks, and have more efficient updates. In fact, his whole message was ‘we need more efficient apps for emerging markets’. Or seen a different way, emerging markets are forcing us to design our apps more efficiently. Yes!

An interesting takeaway from “Emerging Markets – Delivering Universal Access to Essential Services” was the learning about data consumption for first time smartphone users. America Movil talked about how users don’t understand what’s happening to their mobile credit. Since they don’t see the apps updating and downloading content, they assume mobile service providers are ‘stealing’ their money. America Movil says they’ve had to focus on teaching users to turn off data updates and understand how apps work. If Facebook can make their app more efficient, maybe America Movil won’t have to deal with the data consuming backlash from customers.

But my proudest moment at the conference was when Manoj Kohil from Airtel talked about how emerging markets were leapfrogging technology platforms. Manoj was referring to the desktop in particular. Figures show that new connected users are going straight for the smartphone and tablet platforms. Even laptops are skipped. This story was very inline with a session from the day before featuring representatives from CNN, YouTube, and Electronic Arts. Their story was the same. Not only are people using smartphone and tablets more and more to access news and entertainment, but on the weekends in particular, the use of computers significantly drops. I was happy to hear that emerging markets were not only adopting the tablet and smartphone technology quickly, but skipping over traditional technology that was historically part of the technology growth path. We’ll see this story more and more – where emerging markets learn from developed economies and adopt only the most efficient and new age systems.

Was happy to judge the mWomen Mobile Awards competition and  participate in #MWC14. Next time though, I’d like to see a little more focus on the mobile innovations coming out of the technology startup scene in emerging markets, as oppose to mobile technology put in place to ‘save and help’ emerging markets.

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