Nokia Life Tools takes telecoms to the rural poor

10 September 2011 | Tim Phillips


A browser-like experience for a dollar a month.

Jawahar Kanjilal was given an impossible job by Nokia in 2007: build applications that give customers the information they need to live their lives better, but target it for customers who will spend a dollar a month. And personalise it on an individual basis. And deliver the information by SMS, but give the user a browser-like experience. Oh, and make a business out of it.

Kanjilal has, to date, made a business out of it in India, Indonesia, China and Nigeria, where thousands of the world’s poorest consumers now use Nokia Life Tools. It’s an essential part of Nokia’s diversification from a manufacturer of handsets into a manufacturer of the services that sit on the handsets. “We provide useful information to people who will never have access to the internet from a PC,” he says. “They are absolutely dependent on mobile phones for their information needs.”

When you’re a rural farmer, your needs don’t stretch to a ringtone or a mobile game. The services that Kanjilal’s team produces offer revenue so small as to be almost irrelevant to operators, but for the world’s poorest consumers it’s an incentive to own one of Nokia’s low-priced handsets. It may build market share at what he calls “the bottom of the pyramid”.

The services are based on three pillars: agriculture, health and education. Agriculture offers weather, market prices, information on how to keep crops healthy. Health offers advice on common conditions or diseases: managing diabetes, coping with pregnancy. Education involves English language teaching and a category named “general knowledge”.

Some of Nokia’s NGO partners have approached him to help reach outlying areas. The plan is to provide projects in local areas, using the Life Tools infrastructure. This takes advantage of the other feature of the Life Tools delivery system: personalisation. When users sign up, they tell the server which crops they grow, where they live, or when their due date is.

So the information is filtered accordingly, avoiding information overload and keeping data volumes low. “It’s a consumer base uninitiated to the internet. The paradigm in creating services for them is absolutely different,” says Kanjilal. “And services must work wherever you can make a call or receive an SMS.”

The world’s poorest consumers can’t deliver increased ARPU to operators until they have sold their crops, fed their families and satisfied a hundred other life-sustaining priorities. Should the telecoms industry wait, or help with those tasks? For a carrier, the returns are small – there’s hardly any data being consumed. For a handset vendor, the rewards are much greater.

When he met the users, Kanjilal knew that their rewards would be greatest of all. “They know there’s a lot of progress from the TV. They want to feel connected to that.”

Tim Phillips can be contacted at: tim@timphillips.co.uk