In a remote corner of South Africa, a cutting-edge charity called Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) delivers crucial pre-natal and neo-natal advice by mobile phone to thousands of poor women who lack regular medical care. But the experiment faltered at first because it relied on a developed world solution—text messages—to deliver its guidance. As many of the local women had little or no formal education, and literacy levels were low, text messages were not easily understood. When MAMA added more accessible voice support from women speaking one of seven local languages to its mobile service, the project turned into a dramatic success story.

Finding out if (or how well) your ‘end user’ can read is a good example of the kind of research that can make or break a technological solution in the developing world. But it is sometimes overlooked, meaning that inappropriate solutions are rolled out to customers in the emerging markets, simply because they have worked well elsewhere.

As part of our research into the role of technology in economic development, Accenture Development Partnerships and NetHope consulted over 300 leaders in businesses, NGOs and the public sector. The various respondents almost universally agreed that technological solutions in the developing world must be better tailored to the particulars of an environment before being deployed at scale. Moreover, they must be allowed to evolve once launched, with continued consultation with end-users.

User-driven evolution

A good example of user-driven evolution is the M-PESA system of mobile phone banking in East Africa, which now serves 19 million users in Kenya and Tanzania. M-PESA™ was initially designed as a way for microfinance borrowers to receive and repay loans. But when the service became operational, customers quickly developed their own uses. It is now used mainly to send remittances from one part of the country to another and for shopkeepers to receive payments from customers without having to keep large sums of cash on hand.

Indeed, our research indicates that end-users in developing countries are showing an increasing preference for personalising and customising the products they use; from weather disaster alerts to politically empowering initiatives. Again, in Kenya, an organisation called Ushahidi set up a website to monitor violence in the 2008 elections using crowdsourcing information from text messages, Twitter, email and the web. Within a short time, they had amassed 45,000 citizen journalists to report acts of violence and intimidation. After its overwhelming success in Kenya, Ushahidi projects were launched in Libya, Turkey, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and Morocco.

Older technologies may be better

Sometimes though, the newest technology does not prove to be the best fit. We heard from NGOs (and businesses too) that older communications technologies like radio were not to be forgotten, but also that the more basic features of a mobile phone (like text messages) were likely to be most effective in developing countries. This makes sense when we consider that the vast majority of people in the developing world don’t have access to the internet and that ‘smartphones’ are much less widely distributed.

Technology needs to be used more innovatively

But, when appropriate, technological developments can provide a new array of solutions, or the foundation for new opportunities to scale.

As Maura O’Neill, former Chief Innovation Officer at the US Agency for International Development, told us: “Technology has become a major game changer but lots of people are still illiterate, so the traditional things we’ve done will not work. But you can learn through video. Two-year-old children who cannot construct sentences are able to navigate an iPad by themselves. The icons in a graphical interface will soon be translated into a mobile phone app. People who use smartphone technology will become more literate.” That is to say that it could be possible to design technological solution that not only support the user’s direct economic needs, but also teach him or her how to read.

Although this may seem a long way off, in agriculturally-focused mobile projects in Africa and India (where there is a high degree of illiteracy) technology firms are already working to develop special smart phone icons that are readily understood by all farmers. When you consider that around 10 percent of all crops are wasted each year you realise how useful (and cost effective) a simple app that can tap into the latest global metrological and economic data could be to farmers when it comes to increasing yields at the right time for the market to absorb.

Rolling out solutions in developing countries is not easy but, we have found, that – as so – often – it is end-users who can help the most when it comes to effectively designing a solution to meet their own needs.

You can read the first in-depth papers in the new series on technology and development by Accenture and NetHope here.

Join the debate or via Twitter with #techindev

William Brindley is Chief Executive Officer of NetHope, a unique collaboration of 39 of the world's leading international humanitarian organizations working together to solve international development problems

Jessica Long is on the leadership team of Accenture Development Partnerships, a not-for-profit group within Accenture which provides business and technology services to the international development sector.