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Insights 8 Mar 2016

The Value of Connectivity: Huawei and Digital Enablement

By Alicia Ayars
Image © CC Kārlis Dambrāns via Flickr

Huawei, the global communications technology company, is aiming to accelerate progress in giving people access to digital information and resources. Image © CC Kārlis Dambrāns via Flickr

Huawei is a global information and communications technology solutions provider headquartered in China. In November 2015 it published a research paper – Digital Enablement – aimed at accelerating progress in giving people access to digital information and resources. Adam Lane, Director of Sustainability Programs at Huawei, spoke to Alicia Ayars about the report.

Alicia Ayars: What are the main findings of the report?

Adam Lane: The core finding was that while more people are gaining access to the Internet those who are offline (upwards of four billion people) are getting further and further behind. While the digital divide is narrowing, it’s closing less quickly than it has in the past.

Looking at those in extreme poverty, there is going to be real difficulty in connecting the last two to three billion to broadband internet — even though they are the ones who could benefit the most. It is clear that the problem is complicated and varied, but at the heart is the issue of business models that enable the provision of connectivity and the life-changing services the internet facilitates.

What are the recommendations to enable providers and users of ICT to get better outcomes?

We approached the problem from both the business perspective and the attempts of governments and NGOs trying to bridge the digital gap. We found that few solutions were scalable, not many solutions had an impact or no one knew what the impact was, and that many of the initiatives being created to address identified needs weren’t that sustainable.

We therefore tried to identify what needs to be done. The report focuses on three ideas: innovative business models; partnerships across the value chain; and measuring the total value of connectivity from a social and economic perspective. If you’re going to look at ICT for development (ICT4D) you need to think about the total value of ICT and our white paper provides ideas and simple tools to do this.

We found that few solutions were scalable, not many solutions had an impact or no one knew what the impact was, and that many of the initiatives being created to address identified needs weren’t that sustainable.

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We also have 19 recommendations for developing and implementing solutions. For example, we suggest that during pilots – you don’t just test the technology or even its short-term impact – you also have to test the business model. If there is some kind of revenue source somewhere that means it can reach more people. Digital enablement solutions need to run on market principles.

Another recommendation is to avoid the common problem of everyone developing their own customised software or app or service rather than re-using or adapting what is already out there. Not enough effort goes into researching what’s already working or not working and what lessons have been learned elsewhere.

Are there certain sectors you focus on?

AL: Agriculture is a really interesting area and that is partly because of the tremendous need in developing countries. I think it is an area where they are getting further compared to the technology advances in developed markets and how people are utilising those. But it is tricky for so many reasons.

From an ICT perspective, providing a nationwide service is difficult because even village to village you have different crops, weather, ecosystems and issues, so it is very hard to get to scale. Despite this there have been a lot of successful cases providing useful information services to farmers on fair prices, appropriate farming techniques and so on. As the internet of things grows and sensors become cheaper, there could be whole new opportunities for improving productivity for the poor.

And the other sector?

We also focus on health. There’s been a lot of innovation and progress in health already, but I think there’s still a lot more potential, particularly with low cost medical devices for clinics or for personal use that can help with preventative care and early diagnosis; which can be coupled with the incredible abilities to unleash cloud-based analytics and algorithms on the images and data coming out of these.

We reference the work the NHS has done in the white paper where it aims to reach out to groups who have major health needs, lack good health information and are often offline. The NHS is working to get these people connected, as they feel more comfortable engaging with the health system that way to get preventative information compared to visiting doctors in person.

It shows very agile thinking in government and takes an approach that puts money in for short-term prevention that is going to lead to reduced treatments and long-term savings. It also shows how using ICT can reduce the load and cost on the physical system [i.e. patients seeing doctors for unnecessary purposes].

There will be huge savings in the long term, the economics of that will be very interesting, just from a UK perspective. I find that fascinating, that we can understand the value of prevention. The Tinder Foundation has done some really good work on that and has good economic analysis.

How does Huawei work with healthcare partners?

We are still working things out, but we are looking at a very collaborative model. We’re not there yet, but we will be partnering with different social enterprises, even multinational companies, as well as NGOs that work in the health space. Maybe we work with these social organisations to bring them to new markets or to scale-up, maybe we can partner in other ways. We want to see how we can utilize our unique attributes in the best way.

I think there could be potential for a follow-up report that really focuses on business models using ICT. We touched upon a few in the report. There are really interesting things happening out there because ICT enables different business models itself, so that’s kind of interesting and that’s the biggest opportunity I think for people to understand: where you can get financing from, how can you get to scale, how can you partner with people in different ways? So I think there is really an additional conversation that can yield more opportunities again.

There are some examples of really interesting business models that are scalable and really interesting strategic partnerships but generally I think they are still too few and far between.

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There are some examples of really interesting business models that are scalable and really interesting strategic partnerships but generally I think they are still too few and far between.

Could you give an example of such a business model?

For example, in Nigeria there is The Audrey Pack and they are providing anSMS service to one million women who are going to have babies or have recently had babies. It’s a very typical service aimed at reducing maternal and child mortality. What’s interesting about their business model is they get people to sign up for the service by giving them freebies, the companies that give those freebies, like Proctor & Gamble, are funding the SMS information service (and offline activities too) as a form of marketing. This is not funded by a government or a mobile phone company, it’s funded by the marketing budget of a bunch of businesses and other companies, so you know it’s sustainable as long as it provides value to the companies and I think there are a lot of other organisations doing that.

It is really difficult to determine the social value of connectivity, but it is increasingly important, especially if that means you can then create partnerships – everyone wins when value is delivered. But the understanding of value also needs to change. Better outcomes result when everyone has something to gain from digital enablement, but gain is not just about financial return, benefit has to be delivered across people and communities.

This article was originally published in Radar 09: Inside the Machine.

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