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How mobile phone apps are boosting climate change action

(Image credit: Image Credit: Varnish Software)

Mobile phones are ubiquitous in developed countries, but it is in some of the world’s poorest nations that the exponential growth and adoption of mobile technology is bringing about the most profound effects. According to the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) LDC’s or Least Developed Countries are far-outstripping the rest of the world in terms of the growth in mobile broadband subscriptions. This is where mobile operators are already working to expand connectivity, enabling vital services to be brought to the most vulnerable communities.

The power of communication means that when it comes to apps, the likes of Facebook and WhatsApp are equally popular regardless of where users are located. What is interesting is how other applications are emerging in response to the very particular challenges that developing markets face. Amongst the household names in India, for example, mobile payment service company, Paytm, is listed in the top ten and the popularity of its app is well illustrated by the fact that in January of this year the company was valued at $10 bn.

This growing interest in, and reliance on, mobile payments applies in other emerging economies too. In East Africa, the majority of the population now subscribes to a mobile money service and this has been a catalyst for financial inclusion, enabling safe, low-cost transactions. Such is its power that one of the leaders in the sector, M-Pesa, now claims that two per cent of Kenyan households have been lifted out of extreme poverty through access to mobile money services. These allow them to borrow, save and pay more easily, and manage financial uncertainties caused by crop failures, droughts or health issues by tapping into a wider network of support and receive payment more quickly when it is needed

The ease of using a mobile, particularly for pay-as-you-go services, means that the technology has facilitated a whole series of additional innovations, one of the most crucial of which is easier access to renewable energy. This is a massive challenge for frontier markets, where energy service providers previously had to rely on innovative methods to gather cash from customers on a weekly basis. By using mobile payment schemes the lives of citizens can be transformed with sustainable solutions that deliver better health facilities, economic opportunities and personal empowerment, particularly for women. Technology is the great enabler in this, helping to deliver the most basic facilities, such as electricity for light and power, that can be paid for in instalments using low-cost mobile payments.

Mobisol, which is based in East Africa -- where the revolution in paying for off-grid solar PV using mobile payments began -- has developed a range of solar electricity solutions for homes that are combined with a mobile payment plan and remote monitoring technology. Households that previously had no access to clean or reliable electricity are now able to charge their mobiles, laptops and even run DC fridges if they have a higher capacity system installed.

Announcing the winners

In Nigeria, Lumos Global, enables both households and businesses to access off-grid solar systems. To make signing up as easy as possible, the company has partnered with MTN Group, the multinational mobile phone network, which has local stores. They manage the payment process, which can be pay-as-you-go, in small instalments, and if users want to renew their subscriptions this can be done easily via text message.

Both of these companies have been honoured by the Ashden Awards, which promote and celebrate sustainability initiatives in the UK and developing countries. Mobisol was a winner in 2017, and Lumos is a finalist in this year’s Awards. In fact, there are many amongst the 2018 finalists who are linking energy access solutions with mobile technology.

In Delhi, a company called Shuttl has launched a scheme which aims to tackle the enormous problem of traffic congestion and pollution. Shuttl uses a mobile app to crowdsource data on demand for rush hour bus routes, enabling it to set up new routes to meet that demand. Bus tickets are booked through the app which also helps passengers to manage payment. The buses are enabled with a GPS device, which not only allows passengers to track the arrival of the bus, but also connects them with the driver’s own app with details of their booking on that particular route. This form of transport is safe, private, economical, air-conditioned and guarantees a seat, but most importantly the service aims to take 10,000 cars off the road every day and save 2,300 tonnes of CO2 annually.

Another finalist, Ecozen, provides solar powered cold rooms that allow farmers in Western India to store fruit, vegetables and flowers at the point of harvest. The temperature in the cold stores can be completely controlled through a mobile app, which usefully displays images of the particular commodity, and sets the ideal temperature, humidity and air quality parameters. The app will also inform the farmer how long he can expect the product to last at the selected temperature, so they can assess the optimum time to sell the produce, thereby reducing waste. The app also has a remote monitoring feature, connecting it back to the manufacturer, Ecozen, which gives them data on how the cold store is being used and its performance.

The link between mobile technology, mobile payment services and renewable energy solutions is not unique to frontier markets however. Look around and it’s easy to see examples popping up all over the UK, such as the everyday use of mobile apps to control domestic heating and lighting, the use of smartphones by British farmers to assess detailed weather forecasts and soil conditions or the ease of making contactless payments using a mobile.

Donkey Republic is a company that aims to reduce city congestion and improve air quality with its smart and responsible bike-sharing scheme accessed through an app. The simple system, which is actually available in many different countries as well as the UK, lets smartphone users choose a bike from those near their location, rent it and unlock it using the app. As well as a partnership with Oxford-based Bainton Bikes, the company is running the bike service at a large business park outside Oxford, which pays for it as part of its sustainable travel plan. 

The mobile industry understands all too well the influence it can have on the future of our planet and it is playing a vital role in working towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.   When looking at the big picture however, it is also important to acknowledge the mobile technology innovations that are being developed and marketed by companies every day, in all countries, and as the Ashden Awards demonstrate, to give each of those companies a bigger voice on the world stage. 

The winners of this year’s Ashden Awards will be announced on Thursday 14 June.

Mike Pepler, UK Awards Manager, Ashden Awards
Image Credit: Varnish Software

Mike Pepler is UK Awards Manager at the Ashden Awards. He has a background in engineering research and computing and gets involved in the technical aspects of the Ashden team’s work.