As part of our ongoing interview series, Nigel Waller, CEO of Movirtu, shares his thoughts on applying technology and mobile solutions to help those people at the “base of the pyramid” (BoP).
1. Could you provide a brief overview of the organization and your role and responsibilities in it?
I am the Founder and CEO of Movirtu, a technology company which works with mobile operators to provide them the infrastructure and business models to help them service the 1 billion people who cannot afford a handset, living on less than $2 a day but who still spend 5-30% of their income on mobile phone services.
2. What inspired you to set up an organization to serve the mobile market in the “Base of the Pyramid” (BoP), where 4 billion live on less than $2 a day?
For the last five years mobile operators in the emerging markets have been asking me to give them solutions specifically aimed at people living below the poverty line, who earn less than $2 a day. The operators were telling me that they cannot simply take phones and services designed for US and Western European markets and reduce the price, they needed devices and services specifically designed for this market. I found this an amazing and huge market, and one which had little interest from traditional technology vendors. I had been working and living in emerging markets most of my life but until five years ago these people just went unnoticed to me. I always naively thought that anyone could own a phone if they wanted, I never really understood the real depth of poverty out there.
So after many years of speaking to the people living in BoP and the operating servicing this market, one day the spark of inspiration came; we can access email and cloud computing services from any thin client PC in the world, why can we not do the same with a phone!. Why does a phone number have to be tied to a phone, why not make it device independent. So with that we re-mortgaged the house and set up Movirtu.
3. What are some of the key challenges you face? In other words, what keeps you up at night?
Movirtu is a social enterprise, and that itself creates a lot of internal effort since we need to address both our CSR goals and the goals of having a profitable business for our shareholders. When we talk to the operators, their focus is mainly on profit; they want to see a service addressing BoP which is profitable for them and a service which is not just a CSR mandate. That is where we have to work hard on building and defining the business models, and providing the right technology to ensure this works. We cannot launch our services without the operator’s involvement and this just adds another level of complexity in our model.
4. What are some of the specific solutions you are bringing to the market?
Our first product MXShare enables cloud computing for the mobile phone; we have created patent pending mobile technology which provides device-independent mobile services, allowing users a virtual mobile phone number and account that can be accessed via a PIN from any phone.
5. What type of impact has Movirtu had thus far, and what does the future hold for the organization?
Our technology innovation has won numerous awards already. We were selected as a “Top Innovator” by the GSM Association, the industry body responsibly for over 750 mobile operators around the world. We have also recently been shortlisted for the “Changing Lives” award at the forthcoming AfricaCom 2009 Congress and I myself have been selected as a fellow for PopTech!. This has cause a lot of interest from several major mobile operators and NGOs and we will be shortly announcing specific details of those engagements.
6. Any additional thoughts?
There is enormous potential for technology to impact the lives of people living in BoP; you just need to open your eyes and ears and listen to the people in BoP and the problems they have and think about how to apply the technology you know in a new and fascinating light. I would encourage anyone who is contemplating taking the leap to do so and to take joy out of making a difference to the lives of people living in the BoP.
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