The power of affordable technology

Kristian Mikhel
11 min readJul 7, 2020

How companies bridge the technological gap and deliver digital services for developing markets.

Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

Technology taken for granted

How fast is your Internet at home? On mobile? Are you able to stream Netflix in 4K and watch YouTube in 8K? If you’re reading this article, I assume you’re not one of the 0.01% of Windows 2000 users and you’re not browsing this page on an original Nokia 3310.

While China rolls out its very first 5G network and Japan researchers test ‘a groundbreaking 100Gbps wireless internet network’, it may come as a surprise for some that the people of Yemen browse the web at .38Mbps and the vast majority of the residents of Eritrea don’t have access to the Internet at all.

Socotra, Yemen. Photo by Fahd Ahmed on Unsplash

Not only are we used to the speedy Internet, but we have also accepted and embraced the Website Obesity Crisis: web pages are getting heavier every year — Google’s research shows that 79% of pages weigh over 1MB and 24% — over 4MB. It will take a minute for an average visitor from Equatorial Guinea to load its content, not to mention they may not have access to cutting-edge technology.

This issue is well-known to all residents of underdeveloped, remote, and low-populated areas. For instance, Magadan, a remote port town in East Russia, had been enjoying satellite-only Internet until recently while an average download speed in Moscow would easily reach 5.6Mbps in 2018. Perhaps, not everyone wants to download Red Dead Redemption 2 which weighs 88.56GB, but what about basic services? How would you send your loved ones a message on Facebook? How would you watch an adorable kitten video on YouTube? Get a cab? Listen to the latest ‘Asking Alexandria’ album?

Another issue the population of developing regions is facing is the affordability of the Internet: low income and high costs, lack of infrastructure, local taxes and fees prevent millions of people worldwide from accessing the web. While residents of Ukraine pay around $5/month for the broadband package, in Mauritania the same package would cost $768.

The countries with the cheapest internet in the world (Cable)

Altogether, only 59,6% of the global population has Internet access, but in Africa, the number is even lower — out of 1.3 billion people, over 820 million are not connected to the global web. Although the Internet penetration rate is growing rapidly, the factors that impact the access speed and affordability can’t fade away instantly: it takes time for the web to reach the remote areas. It takes even longer to educate the people, relieve discomfort, demonstrate the capabilities of the new big thing.

Technologies designed in and for the problems of low and middle income groups in poor countries were rare and their needs were largely ignored.

The digital world as we know it grows and transforms and its impact on human lives and society is indisputable. However, its capabilities are severely limited in developing countries by lower connectivity, lack of contact with technology, and less access to essential digital services. Assuming the needs of the emerging markets based on that of the developed countries is a recipe for disaster: the need for digital transformation and the relief from the information poverty is the only unambiguous similarity, yet the path is defined by local requirements and specifics.

It’s fairly impossible to instantly upgrade the outdated infrastructure and educate the population, but it is possible to adapt the existing solution to the local specifications. So how might the company behind the digital product realise the immense potential of the developing markets, bridge the gap, and provide affordable service worldwide?

Luckily, alongside the world where the Facebook app for iOS weighs 446.7 MB, exists a huge and exciting world of affordable digital services.

Affordable apps

Lite products have been around for quite a long time: way before the concept of a mobile application appeared, the retail stores would offer their customers free samples of their products. Studies demonstrate that free sampling promotions create ‘an expansion effect’ and push the user to purchase the product which they otherwise wouldn’t consider paying for. In the long run, this means that although some vendors may blame the freemium model for decreasing the total sales of the full version, the lite sample, in fact, is a gateway to purchase, a clever trap that allows to acquire and grow a loyal customer.

In a way, lite versions offer the same experience as freemium versions of paid products: stripped of unnecessary, over-bloated functionality, they still feature most of the essential, build loyalty and trust, and allow to penetrate the previously unavailable markets and gain thousands of users before unlimited Internet access and advanced technologies reach their region.

In 2009, Opera Software’s Opera Mini — a fast and extremely lightweight browser — was the world’s most popular mobile browser. In 2012, Opera had a market share of around 72% in Africa and kept increasing its popularity in emerging markets thanks to its data-saving features, sometimes with little to no PR efforts and advertising.

In 2015, Facebook launched their first ‘stripped-down’ version of the website — unlike the parent app, lite version occupies as little as 1Mb of space, is promised to work well on a slow network, and only lacks some non-essential data-intensive features.

Facebook Lite by Gautam Roy of Facebook Engineering

Facebook had a clear vision of what their ‘lite’ version should be capable of. It was meant to work on any low-end Android device, regardless of storage space or RAM, load the content relatively fast on 2G networks, but most importantly — consume as little data as possible. It was only made available in some countries in Africa, Asia, and Europe, and it was a giant leap forward from their previous product — a free text-only version of the platform.

Later, Google summed the principles up in a guide for developers. The next billion users, as Google calls them, offer a precious opportunity to every company willing to reach the emerging markets: they’ve got potential of becoming a valuable asset, should the company know how to reach them. In addition to the three basic principles mentioned before, Google suggests allowing the users to control the type of data connection used, localising the apps and adjusting the tone of voice, UX, and UI, and respecting the socio-cultural expectations.

Lite games may also have the potential of becoming a new big trend. In August 2019 Tencent launched PUBG Mobile Lite that requires twice less hard disk space and RAM to run smoothly. Real Cricket Go is another example of a lite app: while the original game takes up over 300MB of space, the lite version asks for 35MB and supports 512 RAM devices.

Spotify Lite. Photo by Spotify

Although lite applications do find their users in the developed countries, their primary customers inhabit the regions with less advanced infrastructure and more expensive data. Lite apps are gaining more and more weight — Facebook Lite alone has over a billion downloads, and the more people have access to affordable Android devices and less restrictive mobile Internet plans, the more popular lite apps become.

Affordable OS

In 2017, the OS market was divided between two well-known products: Apple’s iOS and Android with 22% and 76% respectively, with iOS having a significantly lower market share in developing regions. This balance stands until today — however, in some markets, those numbers don’t make a solid 100 alone. Alongside some of the rather extinct operating systems such as Symbian or Windows Phone, there exists a third emerging player.

In 2017 a Hong Kong-based company KaiOS Technologies released the first version of their newest operating system, KaiOS, with the promise of bringing the joy of using the modern application to the low-end devices. The new OS was partially based on the discontinued Firefox OS, offered a rich marketplace, 4G support, and promised to bridge the gap between the feature-rich smartphones and cheap old-school phones that still remain popular in the developing markets. The company even hired 30 former Mozilla employees to help develop the operating system.

Image by KaiOS Technologies

In less than a year, KaiOS became the second most popular mobile operating system in India, raised $22 million from Google and $7 million more from the Indian operator, and by 2020 brought over 500 applications to its marketplace, including Google Maps and Assistant, Facebook, WhatsApp, and many more. As the world is waiting for Apple, Google, and Samsung to reveal their next big thing, KaiOS developers are working hard on making the over-demanding products accessible for those who can’t afford a cheap Android device, let alone the latest iPhone.

In 2018, the so-called ‘smart feature phones’ saw 252% growth in demand in India thanks to the outstanding popularity of JioPhone models. Studies suggest that over 370 million phones are expected to be sold between 2019 and 2021, a fairly significant amount. The role of KaiOS is undoubtedly vital: it bridged the gap between technologically advanced and affordable outdated devices and revitalised the feature phones market.

Some of the built-in features of KaiOS, such as Goggle Assistance, are found to be especially important to first-time users in developing countries. In the places where the illiteracy rate reaches 65%, voice control may become the only way of ordering the goods or contacting the customer.

KaiOS deliberately goes the other way: while the other tech giants are struggling to deliver more capable, more advanced gadgets, the company is getting rid of everything leaving as little as $3 worth of hardware in their budget phones.

Image by KaiOS Technologies

Educating the first-time users remains a challenging task, but the company seems to have thought of that aspect as well: KaiOS features a pre-installed app called ‘Life’ which is intended to provide relevant curated content on health, education, agriculture, women’s empowerment — helps the first-time Internet users ‘make the most of mobile Internet access’.

With over 150 million users globally, KaiOS has become the third mobile OS giant in less than 3 years and demonstrated stunning success in emerging markets, such as India, Indonesia, Rwanda, Nigeria. Yet, there are still over 1.5 billion feature phone users globally who don’t have access to the latest technologies — a giant potential market of first-time users and loyal customers.

Affordable finance

Another thing that KaiOS running phones support is NFC: among the other things, it allows contactless payments via mobile wallets. However, just having a mobile device with NFC-chip and a wallet app is not enough: the terminal reader should also support contactless payment.

Although COVID pandemic forced the merchants to use less cash than ever before, finding a contactless terminal in a developing country could pose a challenge. Advanced payment methods so popular in the West are yet to be discovered by locals, in the meantime, the businesses and the customers are forced to find more appropriate solutions with low Internet penetration rate, lack of high-end devices in mind, and low level of technology adoption.

In 2007 in Kenya, less than 10% of the population had access to the Internet. In general, over 80% of the Kenyan population lived in extreme conditions — either in poverty or near the poverty line with huge regional differences. Most of the people wouldn’t have access to clean water, let alone the bank account, but the only thing they surely had (around 90%) was a cheap basic mobile phone.

[In Africa,] there is a prevalent perception that banking is for the rich, in a continent where financial services such as opening a bank account can be painfully bureaucratic

Same year Safaricom — the most popular local telco operator — launched a service called M-Pesa: a simple mobile platform that allows its users to send and receive money on their basic phones, no Internet connection required. M-Pesa quickly gained 10,000 subscribers in less than 2 weeks after launch and by 2010 became the most successful mobile payment platform in the developing world. By 2020, it reached Tanzania, Egypt, South Africa, expanded to India, Afghanistan, and other countries, partnered with Visa, and hit 24.5 million customers.

Photo via Fiona Graham / World Remit

M-Pesa became the default payment system handling around 20% of the Kenyan GDP. In the country where the vast majority of the population is denied banking services, the country that recently survived bloodshed and dove into a political and financial crisis, a simple platform revolutionised the entire industry, helped around 185,000 women to switch occupations from farming to business and retail, and lifted around 2% of Kenyan households out of poverty.

Today, around 2 billion people worldwide do not have a bank account and the digital services are bridging the gap, allowing the unbanked population to digitise their funds, providing basic bank-like services to the poor. Products like bKash which is now accountable for over 80% of all mobile banking transactions made in Bangladesh offer both a simple mobile app that runs on low-end Android and iOS devices alongside a channel for feature phones.

The future of mobile banking in developing countries relies a lot on the infrastructure, the relations between telco companies and traditional banks, the legal regulations which differ from country to country and may pose a threat to smooth and quick growth, yet the potential of the emerging markets and the changing digital landscape inspire players to push for transformation.

Photo by Forbes

Affordable future

Technology is capable of drastically improving the quality of life. The long-term impact of affordable technology on developing markets is stunning: it’s connecting and educating the people, providing essential services, creating the opportunities, opening a pathway to prosperity.

The economics of serving marginal communities is not easy to make work.

Developed countries have always been ahead of time providing the world with most of the innovations. Emerging markets are not fully capable of adapting over-demanding technological achievements. The calls for affordable, ‘appropriate’ technologies had been ignored until very recently. A shift towards developing markets, attention to the areas with the limited access to technologies, and the huge success demonstrated by certain players give hope for an affordable future for all.

Innovations can’t appear out of the blue and the society is not likely to adopt those technologies that don’t provide solutions to its immediate needs. Trimming down the core functionality of the soft and hardware or getting rid of most useless features, coming up with revolutionary systems or utilising existing infrastructure: there are multiple ways the company can reach out to the customers that don’t have the privilege of choosing the latest flagship gadgets as their daily drivers, and different situations demand a certain level of creativity, crucial partnerships, and non-standard approach.

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