The Social and Economic Role of Mobile

03/10/2013 15:18 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

Following the attack at Nairobi's Westgate Mall, 62 million Kenyan shillings (£444,000) was donated to the Kenyan Red Cross in just 48 hours via mobile. Safaricom set up a free text payment service on its M-Pesa platform, enabling Kenyans to quickly donate money to support those affected.

Mobile money is being used across Africa for social good. In Tanzania, M-Pesa is being used to pay for women who are suffering with the debilitating maternal health condition obstetric fistula and living in remote parts of the country to travel to hospital for treatment.

Aside from the social benefits, mobile money has an economic impact on individuals' lives and on countries such as Kenya and Tanzania. M-Pesa is enabling people's salaries to be paid in a more efficient and secure way, as well enabling the creation of thousands of small businesses. There are now more than 100,000 M-Pesa agents who are providing thousands of unbanked consumers and small businesses with the ability to transact quickly and more securely, not to mention the numerous small businesses benefiting from the ease and security of mobile money. A staggering 35 per cent of Kenyans have an M-Pesa account and there are 18 million M-Pesa customers globally. In short, mobile money is just one example of the transformational impact mobile is having on communities and individuals' lives, both socially and economically.

Research by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research for the Vodafone Institute for Society and Communications has outlined the impact of mobile on both society and economies in 10 emerging and developed countries until 2020. It forecasts GDP growth from 2010 to 2020, with some interesting results. In Egypt, an increase in mobile phone subscriptions is directly linked to a 19.6 per cent increase in GDP per capita between 2010 and 2012. Accumulated from 2010 to 2020, this translates to US$85 of additional GDP linked to the growth of mobile technology adoption for every Egyptian - the highest estimate per populate across all 10 countries.

The impact of mobile in Egypt in recent years is astounding. Not only has mobile money just launched in Egypt, but there are numerous examples of how mobile phones are changing people's lives in the country. Earlier this year, I visited the Foundation's mobile literacy programme. We were invited into a class where women from their teens to their 80s were learning how to read and write, using a simple mobile app developed as part of the programme. There are now more than 100,000 people registered on our mobile literacy programme in Egypt and these simple mobile devices are literally transforming people's lives. Giving people the skills to read and write not only enables a more equal participation in society but helps create a fully functioning democracy.

The social and economic benefits of mobile are not simply an emerging markets trend. In Spain, for example, figures forecast from 2010 to 2020 translate to US$514 of additional GDP linked to the growth of mobile technology adoption for every citizen. Mobile is also playing a social role in Spain. Take the TecSOS mobile device, which provides victims of domestic violence with a link to emergency services at the push of a button. The TecSOS handset has since launched in many other European countries and 29,000 women having benefitted. In the UK, for example, it is being used by police forces in almost half of the country.

There is a direct correlation between increased mobile phone subscriptions and greater democratic participation, particularly in emerging markets. And, as the availability of mobile technology increases, gender inequality declines - not to mention the more direct impact mobiles have on our ability to share information and provide better access to education.

"Mobile phones are more than just communication tools. They give people the opportunity to participate in economic and social processes," says Dr Mark Speich, Managing Director of the Vodafone Institute, neatly summarising mobile's role in society.