In the Developing World: Social Networing from Any Phone

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There’s little doubt mobile phones can have an empowering effect on those in developing nations, and we’ve already seen efforts to use such technologies for improved income opportunities and healthcare, to name just two examples. Now Finnish Sibesonke—a spinoff from Nokia Siemens Networks—is doing something similar to give underprivileged consumers new access to classifieds, chat and social networking services.

Sibesonke’s vision is to empower the 2.5 million or so disadvantaged mobile phone users in emerging and developing countries. Specifically, it has built a service that’s accessible with even the simplest mobile phone using interactive telecommunication protocols. There’s no need to upgrade a phone or establish an Internet data connection; rather, Sibesonke works using SMS and the USSD text-based browsing protocol, both of which are part of the GSM technical standard. With Sibesonke’s proprietary service, even users of 10-year-old GSM phones can browse content and make posts online. In South Africa, for example—where Sibesonke has focused its first efforts—users need only dial *120*686# to establish a data call that gives them a text screen on their phone. From there, they can access job ads, buy-and-sell services, health information and social connections, among many other offerings.

Sibesonke is a for-profit company; its first commercial service is iBOP, a phone-based market research tool designed to gather consumer insight about products, services and advertising from less wealthy South Africans. Meanwhile the company has already won several awards, including the Red Herring 100 Europe 2010. After a pilot in South Africa last year, Sibesonke is now working towards expansion, and it seeks partners on both the technical and socially focused ends.

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