Expose, engage, empower: Connecting unlikely entrepreneurs in the mobile era

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The Smart Rickshaw Network could improve traffic conditions on Indian roads. (Credit: Hyougushi, Flickr Creative Commons)

“SRN: Smart Rickshaw Network” by Aadhar Bhalinge – a prolific technology developer from India – is the winner of m2Work, the mobile microwork innovation contest that infoDev and Nokia launched in February. The infoDev team has taken a closer look at his and the other five finalists’ backgrounds, and we found some helpful insights about new sources of innovation, their promise, and their needs.

To put these lessons in context, let’s take a look at the microwork ecosystem before m2Work. Microwork platforms, like Samasource and MobileWorks, were already connecting thousands of people in developing nations with jobs like moderating websites, tagging images and video, and so on. But these platforms were most useful for workers with access to computers with broadband, which are the exception rather than the rule in many regions.

Meanwhile, mobile technology’s reach is growing at unprecedented rates. Of the 6 billion mobile subscriptions worldwide, 77% are in developing nations, transforming not just communications, but entrepreneurship, commerce, health, agribusiness, and governance. m2Work was an effort to find niches where microwork would be well-suited to add value or save cost when done through a mobile application, bringing income to mobile phone users all over the world.

Expose: new solutions to familiar problems
The rate of submissions climbed steadily over the challenge’s two-month run, as more innovators learned about mobile microwork. But even though the tool was new, the best innovators applied it to local needs and opportunities that were familiar to them.

Take the grand-prize winner, Aadhar, who observed rickshaw drivers over years during his daily commute. One day, a driver complained to him about the valuable time lost in traffic—which stuck in Aadhar’s mind as untapped potential. Once he heard about mobile microwork, he was able to connect the two, and his winning idea was born. In this, most submissions mirror Aadhar’s: a stunning 96% came from developing and emerging economies and sprang from real life.

Shares of m2Work submissions by World Bank regions.

Engage: innovation is a team game
Many smart, ambitious contestants had previously tried and struggled to launch companies in a vacuum. Some lacked the detailed business know-how to turn ideas into business proposals. That is why we set up “speed-coaching” for the finalists: over two weeks, each of them was put in touch with one personal coach, as well as seasoned experts from mobile microwork and app startup investment.

Not only did this boost the quality of the finalists’ second submissions package; it also motivated them to put effort into further developing their idea. Finalist Jeong Tae Kim, whose “Microwork Publishing Platform” would use microwork to spread folk literature across languages and borders, was pleased with the hands-on support, especially with helping to get the financial proposal straight.

More generally, potential innovators need spaces where they can gather to help and motivate each other and to keep each other abreast of developments in business and tech. That’s why the largest idea contributions came from local workshops run by infoDev’s Mobile Laboratories (mLabs) and Mobile Social Hubs (mHubs). In fact, two training events in Armenia boosted the number of submissions from this small country to 399, including the runner-up of the competition “MicroForester.”

To see an interactive visualization of the submissions, click here.

Empower: now the real work begins
Ultimately, the real test of m2Work will be how many companies it hatches. Moving forward, we want to stay in close touch with the aspiring entrepreneurs as we connect them to key networks. This work is already underway: Aadhar sparked interest from the Mumbai Angels, an India-based investor and mentor network, when he reached the final stages of the challenge.

“The m2Work award was a perfect start for Aadhar, and we saw it as an ideal opportunity for us as early-stage investors to connect with him. We see the potential in his idea: the business model can definitely be turned into a successful mobile app startup” says Prashant Choksey of the Mumbai Angels.

* * *
The early lessons above show how online competitions can drive mobile innovation by kickstarting early-stage projects with large development potential. What is more, organizations like infoDev—with grassroots and entrepreneur support networks already in place—can play an essential role helping the entrepreneur from ‘mind to market’.

Naturally, our work on that front continues. With the help of our mLabs and mHubs, we will help app prototyping and exchanges between developers, and we’ll share lessons with other units in the World Bank. We are grateful to UKaid and Nokia for their ongoing support of m2Work as we set out in our own challenge—enabling startups to get off the ground.

Key facts:

• There are over 6 billion mobile subscriptions worldwide, out of which 77% are in developing nations.

• 96% of the 939 m2Work submissions came from developing and emerging economies.

• 399, or 42%, came from Armenia, which had the support of an infoDev-supported  grassroots mobile applications lab.


Nicolas Friederici

ICT4D & Mobile Innovation Associate

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