Scaling Mobile for International Development: Harnessing Opportunities, Minimizing Challenges

As global mobile penetration expands, it brings with it a significant opportunity to create access to information and services in areas such as health, agriculture, education, finance, retail, etc. to underserved communities. Despite these opportunities, it is important to understand the challenges that come with engaging Mobile Network Operators, or MNOs (owners of key communication channels like text messages, mobile data and voice as described in our recent publication “Mobile Capability Model”.

MNOs tend to be the first choice of engagement to deliver services due to their ubiquitous global presence, assumed ease of integration, access to a large subscriber base and willingness to support humanitarian initiatives. Despite the many advantages offered by engaging an MNO, launching a project can turn out to be a lengthy, challenging process. From kicking off a partnership agreement process between an MNO and NGO followed by an integration process, several months can go by before a project can be launched.

An alternative to MNOs are Mobile Aggregators, intermediaries who regularly interface with all the MNOs in each individual country. Aggregators can reduce complexity, cost and duration of implementation when launching services across multiple countries and operators and communication channels. As a one-stop-shop, aggregators provide almost instant connectivity and scale rapidly without the time-consuming bureaucracies of partnership agreements, negotiations and integrations that come with partnering with individual MNOs. Because the majority of aggregators provide online hosted solutions, launching a service is just a matter of registering on a portal, accepting terms and conditions and integrating via API. This enables actors to launch a critical service within a couple of days to citizens in need.

This idea of engaging Mobile Aggregators as an alternative to MNOs is not new – it was mentioned in 2015 in a joint publication by the United Nations Foundation and the World Health Organization titled A Practical Guide from Engaging with the Mobile Network Operators in mHealth.

It’s important to note, that because of the opportunities and challenges of working with MNOs and/or Mobile Aggregators – identifying the right kind of technology partner for a project still proves to be a difficult and tedious task.

The Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) seeks to address this information gap in better understanding MNOs and Mobile Aggregators through our Mobile Communication Channel paper series. Last fall, we published a guide explaining core mobile services that can be of use for NGOs. This month we released our next publication in the series, “A Guide To Using Mobile Aggregators To Deliver NGO Services At National Scale” that provides guidance for NGOs to make an informed decision about whether to use an MNO or aggregator to deliver services at scale.

Our early research looks into the mobile aggregator space and maps out capabilities, geographical coverage and MNO relationships of three major regional mobile aggregators in Africa: Africa’s Talking, Cellulant and Synq Africa.

Last week along with launching our latest publication, we facilitated a workshop in Malawi along with various NGOs, MNOs, Mobile Aggregators, UN agencies and Government officials. The objective of the workshop was for the groups to meet each other to understand how best to work together to reach target beneficiaries.

DIAL will continue to work on expanding the aggregator repository of available aggregators to the NGO community, so if you are an aggregator please feel free to reach out to the Mobile Network Integration team at DIAL at