Technology Salon

Washington DC

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a discussion at the intersection of technology and development

How Can We Successfully Partner with Mobile Network Operators?


Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) and development organizations need each other, but few preexisting partnerships have yielded success stories worth boasting about. MNOs offer scale and an established structure for services, while development organizations offer unique insight and connections to “untapped” markets such as rural populations and women.

At the July 23 Tech Salon “How Can We Successfully Partner with Mobile Network Operators?” attendees agreed that MNOs and development organizations need each other, and are need to employ better strategies to facilitate good partnerships.  Recently GSMA published Mutual Value, Mutual Gain, a guide of best practices for development organizations to successfully approach MNOs, understand the industry jargon and read about successful case studies. Kristin Roggeman of mWomen at GSMA, David McAfee of HNI and Loretta Michaels of HMS Wireless led the discussion.

Why Are Partnerships With MNOs Challenging?

A lot of attendees working with MNOs said often development organizations approach MNOs in an adversarial way. In many cases,  organizations fail to consider the goals of the MNO, or disregard them in comparison with their own objectives. Partnerships are doomed from the beginning if development organizations and MNOs don’t look past their individual goals to find shared benefits of working together.

A necessary initial step to work with MNOs is a well-researched pitch. GSMA’s Mutual Value, Mutual Gain guide defines a list of industry jargon for development orgs to make pitches to work with MNOs. MNOs run businesses, and they want to increase revenue. Development organizations must figure out how partnerships with MNOs can increase their profits, if not directly, then through a reduction in churn or increased Average Revenue Per Usage (ARPU).

Should Development Organizations Share Data with MNOs?

Development organizations understand information about the communities where they work that could benefit MNOs: knowledge about what is available and consumer preference in certain areas, as well as demographics for certain regions and other info. Also, development organizations have local content, which could be a key to initiating interaction or adoption of services for MNOs. Information about crop prices, health, or current events have been proven to lower churn rates for MNOs, because customers value that information.

Sharing information with MNOs about communities opens a new can of worms for development organizations. In many cases, especially for illiterate populations, people do not understand basic consent and may be vulnerable to companies that can gain access to their information. This is a yellow flag for organizations partnering with MNOs, because they should make sure any info they share does not exploit the communities where they work. They have an onus to understand potential outcomes of sharing a community’s data.

Development Organizations Should Try to Work with MNOs

Working with MNOs may be challenging for the factors listed above, but it also provides an opportunity for development organizations to operate within a different model than traditional models that create inefficiency and barriers to real-time responsiveness during projects.

For example, partnering with a business may produce a more sustainable project if funding must be generated within the project. Many organizations struggle with siloed funding from donors or governments, but perhaps working with the private sector could break down some of those silos that prohibit project responsiveness.  Organizations and businesses could alter the project in real-time to address inefficiencies.

Development organizations should continue to run programs in partnerships with MNOs, because the partnerships offer scale and a more responsive project platform than traditional models. As one technologist put it, “We all love our mobile devices, and we love how mobile adoption is accelerating across the developing world. But we don’t love mobile network operators like we should.”

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