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not exactly moving around at his speed

Working for an AusAID private sector development program based in Suva for the past two years has given me the opportunity to travel around Fiji and see the challenges affecting its people and its economy. The work has been very engaging and taken up all of my time, a large factor in why I have neglected this site.

I’m coming back to this site after a long hiatus to share with you my insights from having taken a much closer look at the issues faced by agriculturalists and small businesspeople around the islands. I will also be chronicling a few special projects over the next few months. The emphasis remains the same as before, trying to show that first-rate innovation is possible in the Islands

I remained as convinced as ever that technology has a role to play in helping lift people out of poverty. Yet, I’m a bit more grounded about whether technology decision-makers will actually put in place the conditions for users to harness the real potential. A while back, I heard from a Vodafone Fiji staffer that some 75% (or greater) of download volume consists of music and videos. So, technology is making inroads into our lives, but users seem to gravitate toward entertainment.

My thinking at work is increasingly dominated by the Development perspective–largely been framed by what can make economic growth possible. Still, I believe in societies where jobs are difficult to find and are low-paying, technology can play a role in unleashing stifled entrepreneurial spirit and providing livelihoods.

Farm-e, my agricultural marketplace collaboration, was a result of this vision. Having visited the agricultural and rural areas of Fiji, I’ve been able to think about how ICT can support those in agriculture. Farm-e remains shelved for the moment.

My focus for now is on remote weather sensor networks and their capacity to inform better decision-making for growers. This came out of conversations with growers about changing weather patterns and the impact of natural disasters.

Over the course of the next few months, I will be chronicling my efforts at improving access to weather data for everyone in Fiji.


Definitely, reason to celebrate

The recent defeat of South Africa’s Springboks at the Rugby World Cup may have resulted from their players’ desire to return home quickly and snap up some very enticing new pricing plans available for broadband service. Despite the rugby loss, South Africa is poised to become the Southern Hemisphere’s leader in telcoms.

A retail pricing war is underway in South Africa. Vodacom, MTN, incumbent carrier Tellkom, iBurst, and others are dramatically lowering prices while improving consumer choice and service quality.

An example of some of the changes:

…stepping up to the plate is MTN, which has launched an unlimited and uncapped data promotion that gives customers navigating options on MTN’s network at peak HSPA+ speeds from as little as R289 (FJD 70) a month.

And iBurst has also introduced new data packages ranging in price from as low as R49 (FJD 11) per month for 1GB to 50GB at R445 (FJD 105).

New devices such as smartphones and tablets drive consumer demand for data. Serame Taukobong, MTN South Africa’s chief marketing officer, said that with the increase in smartphones and tablet technologies data usage has gone up:

“We have seen a significant number of our customers taking up latest smartphones, tablet PCs, wireless routers and laptop deals that MTN is offering. This promotion is a response to the increased data appetite that comes with the usage of these devices,” he said.

At the same time, the Vodacom Apps Store has reached 100,000 downloads in its first month of operation and the company is now launching a program to support local talent in applications development.

New devices driving consumer demand for data

South Africa has achieved that enviable balance where the pipes are in place, and there are adequate numbers of players at wholesale and retail level to drive widespread adoption. As more consumers buy smartphones and tablets, increased data usage will enable even more volume discounting. Most importantly, there will be a user base in place to support an app development community that will have a local market of millions who are in position to buy their creations.

This thriving ecosystem is something the Pacific Islands can only dream of—as I was reminded by a local telecom CEO who said, “we don’t do applications and services”. You might as well be telling me that you don’t do the future. So much for all the empty rhetoric on ‘innovation’. 

Reading the Fiji Times last week, I came across an article which included the following from a local Westpac Bank employee:

Fiji is at the doorstep of e-commerce. The bank understands that this means changes in the way that we currently do business in Fiji and Westpac is ready to take this journey with our customers

But, if the technology entrepreneurs and consumers of Fiji have largely been left out of trends like e-commerce that have swept across more developed economies over the past 15 years, then they are not alone.

According to another article in the Economic Times, India has an estimated 35 million Small and Medium-scale Enterprises, out of which only about 200,000 have an online presence through domains, sub-domains and blogs.

These businesses are squarely in the sights of Google, which is keen to help all these enterprises set up shopfronts online. As they cater to this new market, they will make discoveries and innovations that will only lower the cost of doing business online–something that will benefit Pacific Islanders trying to set up an online presence for their ventures.

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