Can tech succeed where international aid has failed?

The tech revolution has fundamentally changed the way we live. Our personal, professional, financial, and social habits have been irrevocably altered by the internet and smartphones, but although these innovations seem inescapable, there are billions of people who have missed out on these rapid changes. In many parts of the Global South, including parts of Africa and South Asia, life in many respects remains the way it was before the tech revolution. Forget about wifi – in many places, electricity and clean water are still difficult to find. But technological innovation and startups have been able to disrupt aspects of life in developing countries in seemingly small ways, taking on challenges that decades of humanitarian aid haven’t been able to address.

Cell phones have been a major driver of change and development in developing countries. Even in places without running water, most people have some access to a cell phone. Increasingly, these phones have some type of internet access. They are usually low cost, and in many countries, people pay per MB to use a data plan. While not at the same level of sophistication as the iPhones and Samsung Galaxies available to Western consumers, making cell phones accessible to people at all income levels has had far-reaching effects on the way people live their lives. The advent of Whatsapp, a low-cost and low-data messaging service that can be used internationally has changed communication for people at all income levels. Previously, immigration or even moving across the country meant communication with family members was all but impossible. Text messages in many places are prohibitively expensive, and a newly-married woman who moves to be with her husband’s family, as is the reality for many women in developing countries, may be completely isolated from her support system. Now, families can stay in touch with ease. Even international calling via data is more affordable, making it possible for loved ones to talk across borders.

Increasing access to mobile technology has also allowed for the development of mobile wallets, an innovative way of storing money and paying bills for the unbanked. In many parts of the Global South, banks are too difficult to access or too expensive to use for many people, especially women. Purchasing goods and paying bills becomes more difficult. But initiatives like M-Pesa in Kenya and MTN Mobile Money in southern Africa have found ingenious workarounds to these problems. People are able to put money on their SIM cards, and then transfer that money to pay for goods and services. These mobile wallets have allowed an entirely new demographic of people to take advantage of technology and enter the economy in ways previously denied to them.

Other innovations are based around aspects of life many Americans believe are basic necessities. It may seem hard for people in developed countries to believe, but 844 million people do not have access to clean water. By drinking unclean water they are exposed to dangerous bacteria and parasites. Furthermore, 2.3 billion people do not have sanitary toilets, a dangerous situation that increases the likelihood of a deadly cholera epidemic. Startups and tech companies have been looking for innovative ways to bridge the hygiene gap and allow people to access clean water. Lifestraw is one such company. They created a small straw-like purification system. It’s simple to use, easy to transport, and inexpensive. Other companies have created simple boilers, allowing people to purify large quantities of water at once. Startups bring a different perspective to decades-old development obstacles, injecting new ideas into the community.

A final area that startups are disrupting is that of electricity and power. Life without lights is unimaginable to people in developed countries, and electricity is viewed as a basic need that must be met. The devastation in Puerto Rico, for example, caused by long-term electrical outages arguably outdid the hurricane that caused it. But in many parts of the Global South, lights are a luxury and the day ends when the sun goes down. It’s impossible to work or study after dark. Cell phones, which are a lifeline to the outside world, can’t be charged at home, and people may need to walk miles to find a place to purchase the opportunity to charge their phones. But like other challenges in development, tech startups have disrupted the field of electricity as well. The public sector’s initiatives attempt to install electricity wherever possible, which is an important goal but often slow and expensive. Tech startups have focused on getting electricity into people’s hands as quickly as possible. One such invention is the Soccket, a soccer ball that also functions as a lamp or charger. When kicked around for 30 minutes, Soccket can provide light for three hours. Although users have reported some issues with the hardware so far, it’s only a matter of time until the technology improves.

Extreme poverty and low human development may seem like an intractable problem, but tech startups have jumped in to start improving the lives of people in the Global South. The tech boom may have primarily touched people in western countries so far, but ultimately we all stand to benefit from increasing innovation.