Can mobile operators help their customers understand the internet? Lessons from a pilot with Tigo Rwanda

Across the world, the internet is increasingly central to people’s lives, one of the key ways in which people communicate, transact or find things out. Mobile now plays a central role in the economy: in 2016 it contributed US$3.22 billion to global GDP, representing 4.5% of the total.[1]

The GSMA firmly believes that mobile and the internet are some of the key tools that will help solve the world’s major development challenges. However, it will only be able to do this if people have the skills needed to make use of them. These competencies are often bunched together under the broad term ‘digital skills’ (or digital literacy). Given range of competencies covered, it is helpful to break it down into three distinct areas: ‘basic functional’ digital skills (e.g. knowing how to use a touchscreen device), ‘generic’ digital skills (e.g. using specialist software for work) and ‘high level’ skills (e.g. the ability to create apps).[2] While all three are critical, our research suggests that it is a lack of basic functional skills is the key barrier to internet adoption in developing countries.[3] It is also the issue that operators are most concerned about (in that it threatens future growth) and are best placed to solve (given their distribution networks and unrivalled marketing reach).

As a result, in 2016, the Connected Society team created the Mobile Internet Skills Training Toolkit (MISTT), a visual toolkit designed for organisations (including mobile operators) interested in conveying the fundamentals of using the internet focussed on the key services currently being used across the world (WhatsApp, YouTube and Google). Originally developed in India with Idea Cellular, Telenor and Digital Empowerment Foundation, MISTT was localised in Rwanda by Tigo, where 302 agents were given the materials to deliver digital skills training to customers as part of a proof of concept pilot which ran from June – September 2017.

The results of this pilot have been hugely encouraging and can be found in our recently published Case Study. For Tigo’s customers, the training is helping to address the (commonly held) belief that internet is not for someone like them and is giving them the confidence to make it relevant to their own lives. Customers feel the training was opening up their world through giving them a clear understanding of what was possible online. Crucially, many see the mobile agents as a trusted source of technology related information and return for future support when purchasing airtime.

While we welcome these findings, they didn’t surprise us, given our previous experience deploying MISST in India.[4] In this pilot, the key thing we wanted to understand was whether it made commercial sense for an operator to get involved in this kind of training. To do this, we worked with the Tigo Business Intelligence team to track the performance of the agents involved in the pilot (e.g. in terms of revenue and data usage of their customers) over a six months’ period. In order to ensure that the trends we saw were being driven by the introduction of MISTT, we also tracked the performance of a matched ‘control’ group of agents drawn from the same regions of Rwanda. This was crucial to providing the observed impact was due of the MISTT agent training and not due to seasonal fluctuations or other events going on in the market at the time of the pilot.

Here, results were also promising. We found that training had a significant, positive impact on driving increased data usage among Tigo customers, helped agents increase the number of new data subscribers and led to increased data revenues for Tigo.  Crucially, it also represented a cost effective way of increasing data usage and revenues: the MISTT pilot returned the investment within a month and saw an ROI of 240% within a quarter.

We think  the lessons contained in our Case Study demonstrate that there is a clear, commercial case for operators to help develop digital skills amongst their customer base. Given the ability of operators to reach scale, the potential impact on individual lives, communities and economies could be huge. Over the course of the next year, we will collaborate with other members of the GSMA to do this across the world. Moreover, our newly enhanced MISTT toolkit now includes two new modules – Facebook and Wikipedia – that have been co-designed with these organisations.

We are excited about the role that the GSMA and our operator members can play in addressing this issue. This issue will ultimately define the extent to which the internet can drive socioeconomic development in low and middle-income countries. While we think there is a role for operators in tackling a part of it, supporting the promotion of digital skills should also be a priority for governments, NGOs and other parts of the private sector. Those interested in doing so should get in touch.

[1] GSMA Mobile Economy 2017
[2] Broadband Commission, Working Group on Education: Digital Skills for Life and Work, September 2017
[3] See: GSMA and Mozilla Approaches to local content realising the smartphone opportunity; GSMA, Accelerating Digital Literacy: Empowering women to use the mobile internet
[4] GSMA Connected Society, Telenor’s mobile internet training project in India: raising awareness of the benefits of getting online, October 2016

This initiative is currently funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), and supported by the GSMA and its members.