The mobile revolution in the emerging world saw a spike of SMS-based applications to “solve” development problems: lack of sanitation, access to financial services, education, and more. Yes, there are more cell phones than toilets, as the International Telecommunication Union, reports. But social enterprises are finding that SMS is not always the easiest way to communicate. Rather, the solution involves something even more basic, low-tech, and cheaper.
Anand Shrivastav, 57, is the founder of Beam, an SMS-based mobile money platform, that’s recently partnered with MasterCard to offer “debit cards” to India’s nearly 40 percent unbanked. Beam enables users to store “cash” on their cell phones to buy rail tickets, pay bills, and do remittances.
Anu Sridharan, 26, is the founder of NextDrop, an SMS-based water tool, that’s received funding from Knight Foundation to find a solution to India’s water woes.
They both have the same problem.
"SMS is not the solution,” says Sridharan, as she bounces along the bumpy roads outside of Bangalore to Whitefield, where Hindustan Unilever’s offices are situated. Sridharan has been tinkering away at NextDrop for the past three years; she spent one full year doing household surveys in South India, trying to scale a pilot. Grassroots level work has shown her that SMS has its limitations.
Shrivastav, smartly suited in his Delhi office, surrounded by books of geopolitics, philosophy, and history, says frustratingly, “We have a problem.” It’s similar to Sridharan’s: India has 900 million cell phone users, and growing daily; but they’re not all savvy text-ers.
“It’s not about penetration of phones, it’s getting people to use them effectively,” Shrivastav says. Four years into the business, he wants to expand, going beyond the urban and semi- urban quarters to the “real heartland.” The challenge? “How do we communicate with our customer” Despite efforts to regionalize languages, Beam, he says, communicates in the Roman alphabet. “We’re writing Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Bihari – but it’s still using letters that these folks cannot read. So, how can we expect them to text back to us?”
“SMS is one method of communication, but is not the only one,” says Sridharan, sitting in a London pub, after receiving a Unilever Sustainable Young Entrepreneur Award (and partaking in a stately dinner at Buckingham Palace held in honor of the seven social entrepreneurs awarded).
Sridharan’s venture NextDrop sends residents an SMS, informing them that they will be receiving water. Given that many households in Hubli, a small city (of one million) in South India, fail to get a regular water supply, it’s critical for these households to know when the water is coming. Otherwise, they go three to four days without water, if they’re not home at the right time. And the problem is not unique to Hubli; the NextDrop team is using the new injection of funds from Unilever, and another award from GSMA, to work with Bangalore government on its water woes.
The SMS service is straightforward: the water goes on and users get an SMS; NextDrop asks they send a message back, confirming the water has arrived. “But we’ve found that many people can read SMS, yet responding to it is a different story.” Of all their subscribers in Hubli, Sridharan got only 10 percent to SMS back.
So, she tried a different alternative – the famous Indian “missed call.” Given that SMS costs money (up to 2 Rs. per text, or .03 USD) and requires basic literacy, several Indian entrepreneurs have turned to the “missed call” system to engage with customers.
Missed calls are free and simple to do. Once Sridharan introduced a missed call option (to respond to SMS), response rates shot up to 30 percent.
Sean Blagsvedt, founder of Babajob, an Indian portal for informal jobs, agrees with Sridharan. In fact, he says, only 45 percent of the country’s mobile users (which is, practically everyone), have ever sent an SMS.
Earlier, Babajob sent out job opportunities via SMS, requesting that interested job seekers reply back in the same fashion. But it was too complicated for users, Blagsvedt says. So, they turned to missed calls.
For example, Babajob sends out the following text message: “Driver Rs 9000 in Malleswaram, Bangalore with First Taxi company. Miss call 08012345678 to apply.”
In comparison to earlier, “Driver Rs 9000 in Malleswaram, Bangalore with First Taxi company. To apply to this job, SMS job 232 to 9972200222.”
With the latter style, users had to remember two actions, the job number and the number to call, which added to the problem, he says. This could have been easily solved if users could hit “reply” with the job number.
But that’s not possible, courtesy of a government regulation. India’s FFC equivalent, TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) prohibits SMSs to be sent from a direct phone number. “So, the SMS appears to be from LM-BBAJOB not something like 991234567, which you could reply to directly,” Blagsvedt explains.
That’s why Babajob requests job seekers to give them a missed call; an agent calls back, takes all the necessary data for the registry, and fills out the application over the phone. With this system, Blagsvedt saw a 16 percent increase in job applications.
While it may seem antiquated, calling is a better option, because you don’t have to be literate to do it, Sridharan says. She has implemented an interactive voice response (IVR) system for NextDrop. Residents call in to report issues to a local valveman, and can respond to questions using an automated system.
“The IVR is not as sexy as SMS, but if you really want to collect or distribute ground level data, it’s the best way,” she says.
Shrivastav, too, is a fan of the IVR. That’s his first line of defense for customer service. “If customers have problems with their Beam account, we use an automated service to help them,” he says. “If their question is still unanswered, then the missed call will trigger our agent to call them back shortly.”
Beam’s customer service team is merely 16 people for a company that reportedly has more than 14 million customers, and processes more than a million transactions a month.
Now, as Shrivastav digs deeper into areas such as eastern India, where large populations of unbanked reside, he is concerned about theSMS challenge and has yet to find an ideal solution. “There is no perfect answer to this problem,” he says.
But a second best is to spend more time training Beam agents who help customers with transactions. Thus, Beam has disseminated multi-lingual training programs on video cassettes to be used in training sessions in these new regions. “Remember, these folks are still using VCRs,” Shrivastav says.
“Technology is not the answer. The learning and training is. We have to keep doing the latter to get people to use the technology effectively,” he repeats.