MWC Barcelona 2023: Velocity for climate action and innovative urban services 

From 27 February to 2 March, the GSMA ClimateTech and Digital Utilities programmes attended MWC Barcelona 2023. The programmes collaborated on a range of engaging sessions, met with key stakeholders working at the intersection of digital innovation, social impact and climate action, showcased their most recent innovation fund portfolio, and launched new research projects. Here are our main take-aways.

The main anchoring theme of MWC 2023 was ‘Velocity: Unleashing tomorrow’s technology today’ with exhibitors, speakers, and events illustrating how digital transformation will help society and businesses thrive. With attendance from the mobile industry, policymakers, donors, start-ups, and the wider technology ecosystem from across the world, the event highlighted not only the tremendous opportunities associated with digital transformation across a range of different use cases, but the real social and commercial impact digital transformation is already delivering. It was particularly exciting to see that climate action and social impact are high on the agenda for the mobile industry, and that several mobile operators are supporting digital innovations and partnering with start-ups to drive meaningful change.

A better climate future – opportunities for innovation in climate adaptation and resilience 

We first hosted a session entitled ‘A better climate future’ at the start-up event 4 Years From Now (4YFN) on the opening day of MWC Barcelona. The session, which was a part of 4YFN’s Planet and Tech programme, discussed opportunities for innovation from the perspectives of both funders and entrepreneurs.  

Max Cuvellier, Head of Mobile for Development (M4D), opened the session by highlighting our experience and continued commitment to support start-ups in low- and middle- income countries (LMICs) through the GSMA Innovation Fund and announcing the launch of our latest fund round focusing on climate resilience and adaptation. This was amplified by representatives from M4D donors. Nadja Dolata from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and Chris Edwards from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) spoke about the partnership with the GSMA Innovation Fund and the importance of start-up innovation in the context of climate resilience and adaptation.

The session continued with an insightful discussion on challenges and opportunities associated with scaling digital innovations featuring two GSMA Innovation Fund grantees, Allister Ayque from the start-up Komunidad, an early warning system based in Philippines, and Susan Njihia from HelloTractor, an agritech provider using Internet of Things (IoT) technology to connect farmers with equipment owners based in Nigeria. Allister pointed out that half of the world’s population does not have access to early warning systems. Komunidad’s solution was developed to anticipate droughts and typhoons using software and aggregated data sets to alert communities about upcoming threats. Susan explained that Hello Tractor’s aim is to improve planning and preparedness for farming communities that are facing unpredictable rainfall patterns in Nigeria, highlighting the lack of real time data and localised weather forecasting. 

Innovation for climate impact – lessons from the global south 

On the following day, we built on our previous session by convening a range of different stakeholders such as mobile operators, start-ups, and enabling organisations to discuss innovation for climate impact. To get started, Akanksha Sharma, Head of ClimateTech and Digital Utilities and George Kibala Bauer, Director, Digital Utilities, showcased how the GSMA Mobile for Development programme is helping to address climate change, and presented insights from recent GSMA reports on smart farming and the Internet of Things.

The role of mobile operators

This was followed by a fireside chat with Vikram Sinha, CEO of Indonesian telco provider Indosat Ooredoo Hutchison (IOH). Virkam talked about how mobile operators can support and drive innovation, drawing from IOH’s experiences working on natural resource conservation in Indonesia. Earlier in the day, IOH entered a partnership with the GSMA Mobile Innovation Hub in Indonesia, supported by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), to work on a mangrove conservation project. Mangrove forests play an important role for the climate by working as a natural carbon sequester. Sadly, these habitats are under significant threat from community activities such as shrimp farming. The IOH project will introduce IoT solutions for shrimp farmers to enable them to transform their practices and make them more sustainable. Vikram emphasised that mobile operators should not think about social impact as corporate social responsibility, but to integrate it in their business and customer engagement strategy.

Innovation for urban and rural areas in LMICs

The session continued with an engaging panel discussion featuring organisations working across both rural and urban areas to explore the impacts of climate change and innovative responses to them across contexts. In rural areas, smallholder farmers have to adapt to the impacts of climate change to maintain their production and secure livelihoods. This was illustrated by the experiences of two GSMA Innovation Fund startups. Hafsah Jumare spoke about her work at CoAmana, a digital marketplace that enables farmers in Nigeria to manage financial risks caused by climate change by giving them access to information on best practices, financial services as well as the opportunity to purchase drought-resistant seeds and other outputs. She emphasised the opportunities that mobile coverage provides to farmers in Nigeria, and how climate action is not a nice-to-have but an essential priority for farmers in Nigeria. Turning to coastal communities, the aquaculture start-up Aquarech leverages digital innovation to improve fish farmers’ productivity and enable them access to the market. James Odede from the start-up spoke about how their pilot project using IoT sensors for precision fish farming can make farmers in Kenya more resilient.

In contrast to rural areas, cities are both a cause of and a solution to climate change. Cities account for the bulk of global emissions, and economic activity, while also being vulnerable to the the impacts of climate change such as extreme weather events, poor air quality, and water scarcity. These challenges are set to intensify with the world’s urban population projected to double from now until 2050. Fortunately, many cities have emerged as pioneers for innovative approaches to climate change that have been replicated across the world. Giuseppe Tesoriere from World Resource Institute’s Ross Center for Sustainable Cities spoke about the role of digital innovation and data in supporting cities to more effectively assess, forecast and plan for climate resilient infrastructure and to enable pathways for a more sustainable low-carbon future. 

Wilm Rompf from the clean cookstove start-up ATEC offered an example of how digital technology can be used in climate action, while also enabling access to innovative financing such as carbon credits. An estimated 2.4 billion people rely on firewood and charcoal for cooking globally. ATEC, currently operating in Bangladesh and Cambodia, offers a green, low-cost alternative to this, which can lower GHG emissions and improve air quality in urban households and cities.  

Spotlight on GSMA Innovation Fund start-ups

At the GSMA Ministerial Programme, GSMA Innovation Fund Director Martin Karanja engaged in a fireside chat with Aminata Dumbuya-Jarr, CEO of Freetown Waste Transformers (FWT). FWT is an integrated waste-to-energy company operating in Freetown, Sierra Leone. There, it has successfully deployed a waste-to-energy pilot using proprietary technology to convert organic waste into electricity, heat, and fertiliser thereby cutting costs on energy and waste management bills. 

The discussion focused on how digital solutions and partnerships with the public sector can drive innovative urban service delivery models in rapidly growing cities such as Freetown.  

The GSMA are supporting FWT in digitising the waste collection process by implementing a GPS mobile mapping app to improve the efficiency of existing waste coordination. To scale this solution, increased organic waste input will be required to feed FWT’s anaerobic bio-digesters, highlighting the need to better coordinate input of organic waste. Key to the digitisation process will be a mobile app, which would be used by waste collectors, in partnership with the Freetown City Council, to manage inputs from waste collection partners, and provide live data.

During the discussion, Aminata emphasised the need for public sector organisations to listen to, and be inclusive of, private sector innovators and to realise the role of digital innovation in helping to solve pressing societal challenges. FWT looks forward to building on its successful partnership with the Freetown City Council and to replicate its model throughout the country.  

Beyond FWT, there were several other start-ups from the GSMA Innovation Fund portfolio working on climate resilience and digital urban services participating in the MWC and 4YFN events. For these start-ups, the sessions provided a valuable opportunity to network with other innovators, investors, mobile operators, and technical solutions providers.  

The Internet of Things – a driving force behind impactful innovations for climate impact and innovative service delivery

The rapid expansion of the Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem in LMICs featured prominently in many events and discussions we took part in and is a key pillar of many of the innovative business models used in our GSMA Innovation Fund start-ups. MWC provided a great opportunity for us to launch a new report that takes stock of how, and where, IoT solutions are making a significant contribution to meeting development objectives. The report: 

  • Forecasts for IoT connections to 2030 across Sub-Saharan Africa, South, and Southeast Asia
  • Provides frameworks for understanding IoT solution architecture  
  • Includes country-level data on the state of network coverage, including where specialist IoT networks have been launched and are being used
  • Makes recommendations for accelerating adoption addressed to key stakeholder groups 

We, in the GSMA ClimateTech and Digital Utilities programmes, were encouraged to see that there is a growing global ecosystem working at the intersection of digital innovation, climate impact, and innovative service delivery and would like to thank our partners for all their contributions to make MWC Barcelona 2023 a success. We look forward to continuing to support the ecosystem through research, innovation funding, partnership facilitation, and technical advice – get in touch if you’d like to learn more and collaborate!  

The GSMA Innovation Fund is funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), and is supported by the GSMA and its members.

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