Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

A quarter of a century ago I set up a company to invest in what is arguably one of the most disruptive and transformative technologies the world has ever seen: mobile telephony.

Twenty-five years ago, when I set up Econet, few would have predicted the size of the market we would ultimately have the opportunity to serve, or the way in which the initial offering — enabling people to ring each or text other while on the move — would evolve into providing all manner of data services that support cash transfers, online education, video content delivery and more.

Across the developing world, phones are spurring innovation and boosting incomes: farmers use them to check market prices before selling to middlemen, traders can accept payments in mobile money, and families can send money to each other more easily.

According to a recent study, 2% of Kenyan households were lifted out of poverty between 2008 and 2014, simply by gaining access to mobile money services.

Cellphones are also powering entrepreneurship. In Africa alone, there are now more than 300 active tech hubs, including 180 accelerators or incubators. Mobile operators are part of this ecosystem because they enable third-party developers to innovate in areas such as messaging, billing, location and mobile banking, which in turn allows start-ups to grow quickly.

Mobile technology is also playing a central role in addressing many of the social challenges in Africa, including providing citizens with official identities and giving them opportunities to interact with their governments; tackling the "digital divide" by providing mobile access to the internet; and delivering financial inclusion, health and education services to hard-to-reach communities.

This is just the beginning. We are on such a steep curve of change: if the mobile phone was last century’s great innovation, what will we develop in this 100-year period? How will our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren be changed by new technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing and blockchain? Where are the main opportunities?

It is these questions and more that I will seek to answer, along with a distinguished and diverse group on a new commission on technology and inclusive development, which launched last week in Nairobi.

My co-chairs are Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Indonesia’s minister of finance. The commission is hosted by the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University.

By involving a diverse range of commissioners from a variety of backgrounds, countries, professions and perspectives, we will bring new energy, voices and approaches to the debate on technology and development.

We will share our expertise and mine our networks to find out what and where best practice is. We will create a thinking, innovating, inclusive space where new ideas and policy options are not just debated by experts, but by new voices, too.

Through research, events, and online and offline debates, the Pathways for Prosperity Commission will look at the potential impact of technology on jobs and economic opportunities in the developing world.

We will ask how technology can facilitate more effective government, better access to healthcare and education, a cleaner energy system, and more equal opportunities for women and other marginalised groups.

We won’t shy away from the hardest questions, and while we will have a resolutely optimistic approach, we’ll also be on the lookout for pitfalls and elephant traps.

We will provide the information and analysis that businesses, regulators and others need to protect the poorest and most vulnerable from disruptive change.

Ultimately, we will come up with practical, evidence-based guidance on how to harness technology’s potential for development and poverty reduction and mitigate against negative effects.

It is an exciting agenda, and we are in for a busy and eye-opening two years.

Masiyiwa is the founder of cellphone group Econet.

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