This week, the GSMA announced the launch of the Innovation Fund for Assistive Tech. It will be the first programme providing both mentorship and grant funding of £100,000 to £250,000 to innovators in Africa and Asia focused on digital assistive technology (AT).
Thanks to support from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) the Fund will be open to innovators addressing the varied needs of people with disabilities and tackling the barriers to digital inclusion. [More on eligibility and how to apply can be found on our Fund page].
The events of 2020 have demonstrated connectivity is a fundamental right. Never before has it been so important for people across the world to access daily health information, call for assistance or access education online.
During the past nine months there has been a global acceleration of systems and services which have become ‘digital by default’. As a digital AT, mobile has many benefits. It enables access to services including healthcare, education, employment or information that wasn’t previously accessible. It can also allow people to carry out personal functions with greater autonomy, for example; identify an object, navigate around a city or communicate with others.
However, for the estimated 15 per cent of the world’s population who live with some form of disability there is a risk of being left behind when services are not accessible and affordable, sometimes with devastating consequences for health outcomes. In Kenya and Bangladesh, the GSMA found a mobile disability gap of over 10 per cent in each country, with people with disabilities experiencing specific barriers to owning and using a mobile phone.
Digital AT innovations remain nascent and a recent GSMA Assistive Tech study found there are less than 100 digital AT innovations emerging from Africa and Asia. Entrepreneurs in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) face many challenges including a lack of funding, access to networks and poor infrastructure. Market data on potential customers is sparse, fractured and complex to collect.
Most digital AT solutions are designed by start-ups (around 43 per cent), but many report they haven’t yet had the necessary spring board or funding to build, measure and evaluate their strategies. Innovators need time, mentorship partnerships, resources and investment to assess the potential for commercial sustainability and suitability for people with disabilities. There is a pressing need for appropriate funding to help absorb risks throughout the innovation lifecycle.
To help address this important challenge, the GSMA Innovation Fund for Assistive Tech supports start-ups, small to medium enterprises, or social enterprises (which are revenue generating and commercially focused) in LMICs across Africa and Asia to achieve sustainable growth and improve the lives of people with disabilities.
The Fund is looking for applications or solutions that will address five key barriers:
|Access – increasing accessibility and usability of handsets and mobile services for people with disabilities.||Simple everyday tasks can be painfully time-consuming or impossible when services aren’t accessible. Making services more accessible is not always straight forward. For example, voice command allows people with visual impairment to navigate and operate a phone. Most of these solutions have been designed for English speaking users, so algorithms may not necessarily work for other languages or local dialects. This limits the availability of the technology.|
|Affordability – improving the affordability of handsets or mobile phones and usage fees for people with disabilities.||Solving the issue of affordability is at the heart of sustainable assistive tech business models. Typically, assistive tech can often be expensive due to a reliance on hardware or wearables and/or because often ‘higher end’ handsets commonly offer the best accessibility features. Data to access the internet can also be expensive, since it is usually an ongoing cost. Those with a hearing impairment, who use video to communicate, require heavy bandwidth usage keeping costs even higher. This makes the issue of affordability a significant barrier for users.|
|Relevance – ensuring availability of content, products and services that are relevant to, and meet the needs of people with disabilities.||Solutions need to meet the needs of users, have relevant content and consider factors such as spoken language, sign language, knowledge of local accessibility constraints and linkages to local services. Being open to wider applications of the solution also means considering the relevance of the solutions for more than one group. Tackling the barrier to relevant services can encourage more people with disabilities to use mobile internet.|
|Knowledge and skills – providing people with disabilities with the knowledge and skills required to access and use mobile services, as well as increasing awareness and understanding of the benefits of mobile technology.||Developing the digital skills of users is fundamental for the digital inclusion of people with disabilities, including their confident use of digital assistive tech. Oftentimes, mobile phones are not perceived as assistive solutions by people with disabilities, their caregivers, relatives or phone lenders. Awareness of relevant products and services is also low. Most commonly, people with disabilities are simply not aware that a solution exists to improve aspects of their lives.|
|Safety and Security – addressing harassment, theft, fraud and security concerns of people with disabilities who want to use mobile services and/or building trust in these services||People with disabilities face challenges and concerns regarding the confidential and safe use of mobile services, which are not always designed inclusively. Ethical practices and privacy safeguards do need to be implemented, for example, when assessing business models paid by advertising or referrals. A commonly reported issue is where people with disabilities have been charged more than expected at the point of exchange with a sales agent (because usually bank notes do not have any identifiable features when touched). Trust is a key barrier to address.|
For all eligible organisations tackling one or more of the above barriers, the available support package includes:
- Grant funding between GBP 100,000 and GBP 250,000
- Mentoring on the use of mobile technology including expert advice and bringing organisations together physically or virtually to share relevant insights on business growth, and best practices on how to overcome the barriers preventing the digital inclusion of people with disabilities.
- Learning exchange opportunities with other grantees and networking opportunities with the Assistive Tech programme’s networks.
- Monitoring and evaluation support to evidence socio-economic impact and promote product improvement.
Finally, GSMA Assistive Tech will be hosting two webinars to address frequently asked questions on:
- Wednesday, 16 September 9.30am BST
- Thursday, 17 September 16.30 BST
More information and to register click here.