The Vodafone Americas Foundation, the non-profit arm of the global mobile operator, announced winners of a very unique competition. Last week, the foundation announced winners for its Wireless Innovation Project. The competition called for innovators and entrepreneurs to come forward with ideas on how new wireless technologies can address problems in the developing world.

More than 100 applicants submitted entries for the contest. The three finalists were teams from Columbia University, University of California-Berkeley (Go Bears!), and the University of California-Los Angeles.

A short 4 minute video on UCLA’s entry can be seen here:

The original radio segment, videos, and more information on the other two winning entries can be found at the website of The World.

Cellophone is capable of monitoring diseases like HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria. With this cheap and innovative solution, our health practitioners in rural and outer-island communities can gather important medical information using the cell phone device, transmit the information to a central laboratory where it could be analyzed, and results could be returned via text message.  The whole process could condense into hours what normally might have taken days, if not weeks.

Long-time readers might remember the post on Digital Green, a Microsoft-backed venture to use Internet address the needs of farmers in rural India. The words of the researcher on that project still echo in my mind:

The company surveyed 8,000 people in emerging markets and found their most pressing needs for technology often revolved around entertainment and surfing the Internet.

It reinforced for us that the emerging middle classes are sort of like the middle classes here except they don’t have as much money,” Mr. Toyama said. “It’s sometimes easy for us to get caught up in things and forget we are serving the needs of real people.

Users will seek out technology for entertainment, but for those with interest in extending the reach of technology, it is critical to keep a focus on addressing the challenges that people face in their lives.

Imagine a similar competition just for the Pacific region. With the support of our mobile and telecom operators, a university competition would help students in Engineering, Business, and other disciplines use their education to think about critical issues facing our societies. Students can also pick up important skills such as developing and writing business plans, working in small collaborative teams, public speaking and presentation skills,  and thinking about entrepreneurship. The development of human capital needs to keep pace with technological innovation. Tech-savvy entrepreneurs and professionals do not grow on trees. They have to be nurtured, encouraged, and pushed to take risks.

After the posting on the Safaricom mobile banking example from Kenya, I was reminded that the offering had existed in Fiji for quite some time, but that only made me think about why people in Fiji did not use their mobile credit as currency. I think the answer partly lies in our small size.

The setting in urban Kenya provided a large market where users could pay for a variety of goods and services with mobile phone credits. To get a wide-take up of a service or practice, users require repeated interactions and confidence that comes from seeings thousands of others put their trust in a system.

This does not mean we will not see innovation in our region, it just means that we will have to be more active in encouraging the uses of technology that promote social and economic development. A local competition in the style of the Vodafone Americas Foundation project could serve as a catalyst for change on this front.

Vodafone Americas Foundation