Working to plug the tech gap for the developing world


Most of the pitches at this week’s MIT’s Emtech 2011 focused on elevating high technology for markets that are pretty saturated already. Folks talked about smart vehicular networks and laundry-folding robots.

Two entrepreneurs went the other way. Both are working on ways to bring technology to developing countries underserved by the Internet, mobile devices, and other technologies that people in the U.S. take for granted.

Umar Saif, founder of Pakistan-based SMSall, made his pitch, but not in the flesh: The United States State Department denied his visa application.

Saif said (via email) that the company’s SMSall–what he calls an “SMS social network,”  has 2.7 million users in Pakistan and has conveyed 4 billion SMS messages. For people without good broadband Internet  access, SMS is a good and inexpensive way to communicate.

Developing countries use technology differently than the 1 billion people that technology companies typically target: Saif’s more interested in serving the “other four billion” people in the developing world. Pakistan exemplifies the addressable market: It is the world’s sixth largest country by population (at about 190 million people), but has fewer than 10 million Internet users.

Tech companies “assume the affordability of high-end devices, broadband communications, uninterrupted power, savvy users. None of that is true in the developing world,” Saif said in his taped presentation.  SMSall concentrates on improving peer-to-peer connectivity of “aggressively shared” devices, inexpensive SMS messaging and “social computing without the Internet.”

Saif also developed BitMate, a BitTorrent client covered recently by  GigaOM’s Janko Roettgers. BitMate works over dial-up connections, making it possible to share and download torrents

Another presenter, Aishwarya Ratan, director of Yale University’s Microsavings and Payments Initiative, showed off a “hybrid” slate that converts handwritten paper data entry into a digital format. The goal is to let people keep using existing manual accounting methods while reducing errors and making the data transportable.

“The problem is the inaccuracy, incompleteness and inefficiency of paper copy,” said Ratan, who formerly worked at Microsoft Research (s MSFT) India.

To prove out the concept, a group in the Indian state of Andra Pradesh used prototype digital slates overlayed with their paper ledgers. The slates take handwritten entries on ordinary paper, and digitize and process them, she said. The system also cues the user with audio feedback if the document is incomplete or illegible.

In the pilot program the error rate was cut more than 50 percent and virtually 100 percent of all forms were completed, Ratan said.

Perhaps counterintuitively, the fact that there is less  technology in developing countries, means those countries may leapfrog more developed countries that rely on what legacy technology they already have. Anne Marie Sastry, founder of Sakti3,  a startup focused on solid-state, rechargeable lithium-ion car batteries, said  it’s booming cell phone adoption in the developing world–not in the west– that’s driving lithium-ion battery demand.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user DonkeyHotey

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