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FEATURE20 January 2011

The power of text in the developing world


We speak to Nathan Eagle about how his company, TxtEagle, is tapping into the rise of text messaging in emerging markets to crowdsource data-gathering tasks.

Working as a teacher in rural Kenya, Nathan Eagle received a number of urgent calls asking him to donate blood – usually when there had been a bad accident on the nearby coastal road. Giving blood was a way to help in the short term, but Eagle couldn’t help thinking there must be a better way of managing reserves so that emergencies didn’t arise every time there was a car crash.

“While the western world progressed from the computer with dial-up internet to high-speed smartphones over the course of decades, emerging economies jumped straight to mobile phones”

Text messages provided the solution. Eagle set up a system to keep records of how much blood was available in different locations by getting local nurses to regularly text in details of what they had. Because it costs money to send a text, the system paid them back with free mobile airtime to encourage them to provide regular data. The result: fewer blood emergencies and better prospects for accident victims.

Eagle’s system is now being considered for implementation across the country and his company, TxtEagle, has been working on other ways to harness the power of the mobile phones that more than half of people in the developing world now carry, by crowdsourcing ‘microtasks’ in exchange for small payments. For one client, mobile users were asked to provide details of road signs in their local areas, to help put together a satnav system. For another, they monitored TV ads to check that local stations were broadcasting them correctly. They’ve even helped translate marketing materials into local dialects.

One of the activities that TxtEagle has got into is market research, working for the likes of P&G, Diageo and Google as well as many of the big research agencies. Eagle told Research: “Our clients range from large multinational consumer product companies looking to tap into emerging markets, to NGOs trying to better deliver their services. These clients typically need to conduct market research before launching a new product, or to help better serve an existing community. So it can range from collecting in-store data such as price information to sentiment and consumption surveys.”

“Global brands spend about $125 billion annually in emerging markets. I’d argue that there is a significant amount of waste”

Eagle believes the opportunity for research services is huge. “Global brands spend about $125 billion annually in emerging markets. I’d argue that there is a significant amount of waste. We can help those brand managers better allocate their spend through better on the ground knowledge. It’s a win for end consumers too – they’ll get better products, rather than Western products that they may not need.”

The mobile phone, Eagle says, is the device in the emerging markets where his company operates. In fact, three quarters of all mobile owners live in the developing world. “While the Western world progressed from the computer with dial-up internet to high-speed smartphones over the course of decades, emerging economies jumped straight to mobile phones” says Eagle. “We can take for granted quite a bit of infrastructure – emerging economies have adapted and some ways leapfrogged over the western world, especially in mobile banking.”

By piggybacking on the success of mobiles, and using mobile money systems such as M-Pesa, TxtEagle can offer an alternative to time-consuming and expensive face-to-face research methods. “We are trading small amounts of work time for mobile airtime or money,” says Eagle, “meaning our client gets highly accurate research and our community members earn airtime – offsetting an expense that, on average, constitutes 10% of their annual income.”

Despite the hype in developed markets around smartphones from the likes of Apple and HTC, Eagle believes the humble text-enabled phone has done far more to improve the quality of living in emerging economies. “It’s enabled people to connect, organise labour, access health information and even bank,” he says.

TxtEagle now has partnerships with 220 mobile operators in more than 80 countries, giving it access to 2.1 billion community members. The firm says it is earning revenue in 49 countries.

As for the future, Eagle is focused on “making sure our services can be used with every GSM phone on the planet”. This means the system is likely to stay low-tech from the user’s point of view – making use of the advanced functionality of smartphones is “not a short-term priority”, he says.

As for taking on the rest of the world, Eagle says, “We’re going after emerging markets first, but once we hone the system there is no reason not to also launch in developed markets.”


6 years ago

It's a very interesting and comprehensive article. Through this, we can really see how text messaging can help in various situations. I am a Filipino. I have heard from the news that the Philippines has been considered as the texting capital of Asia. I also hope and pray that there's people like Nathan Eagle in the Philippines, who could think of how text messaging can be used in crowdsourcing. Because I can see that its' really a big help! Since there are thousands and thousands of Filipinos who own mobile phones, why not use it for a noble purpose, right?

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6 years ago

It sounds like a geat idea. But i wonder how Eagle sorts through SPAM regulations and things like that. Does he pre-recruits people by means other than SMS?

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