Build from the bottom in this digital revolution

Digitisation in emerging markets could deliver 64 million new jobs over the next 10 years. But the technological divide between richest and poorest in these societies must be closed, says Booz & Company.
Developing economies, such as India, can reap substantial rewards by fostering greater participation in the digital ­revolution. Rafiq Maqbool / AP Photo
Developing economies, such as India, can reap substantial rewards by fostering greater participation in the digital ­revolution. Rafiq Maqbool / AP Photo

Between 2009 and last year, digitisation - the mass adoption of connected digital technologies and applications by consumers, enterprises and governments - helped to create 17 million new jobs and contribute US$350 billion (Dh1.28 trillion) to the GDP of developing countries. Booz & Company analysis now reveals that digitisation in these emerging markets could deliver an additional $4.4tn in nominal GDP and 64 million new jobs over the next 10 years.

Enhancing digitisation to promote yet more growth and economic opportunity will require investment of $1.4tn. It will demand a concerted public and private effort to increase the digitisation index (DI) of the poorest people in middle and low-income developing countries, those at the "bottom of the pyramid". Yet the rewards are such that this cost will be recovered many times over.

The DI is a composite score of 23 indicators that measure a country's digitisation level on a scale from 0 to 100. In developing countries, the average DI is 27, almost half that of developed economies.

But there's more to the story -there is a digital divide within developing countries. We discovered that the poorest citizens of developing countries, who number 3.9 billion globally, have an average DI of just 17.5. The low digitisation level of the poor is no surprise. Too often, digital technology is beyond their means and knowledge.

But what if digital technology were more readily and affordably to hand? If we could double the DI at the bottom of the pyramid in developing countries over the next 10 years, we could lift more than 500 million people out of poverty. There could be gains in job creation and GDP, along with the unlocking of new markets - with $700bn of new activity in health care and education alone.

To achieve this, we would have to bridge the gap between the $47 per person per year it will cost to digitise the poorest and the $5.50 per person per year that they can currently afford to pay for digital access and devices.

This gap between what the ability to spend and making digital technology more available reflects the underlying digitisation challenge in emerging markets. On the demand side, for example, consumers at the bottom of the pyramid are struggling to find work, a consistent monthly income and affordable credit. They are unwilling to spend on digital technology. There is little relevant content and their customer experience is low quality. On the supply side, existing network operators are overburdened. Plus there are few established distribution and retail networks, and limited expertise with bringing services to market for the bottom of the pyramid.

These mismatches can be addressed through a collaborative effort that combines supply side and demand side solutions.

On the supply side, it will take innovation, co-investment and standardisation across the four pillars of digitisation: reliable network coverage, affordable devices, a cost-effective go-to-market approach and relevant applications and content. Network operators, for instance, will need to adopt innovative, two-sided business models that generate revenue from bottom-of-the-pyramid consumers and earn money from the brand advertisers that typically have no other means to reach the bottom of the pyramid.

Private and public players will need to invest jointly in areas beyond their normal domains, especially in developing network and commercial infrastructure, to create viable markets at the bottom of the pyramid. Standardised technologies, processes and practices, such as interoperable standards for applications, will be needed to reduce fragmentation among diverse markets of the poorest consumers, thereby maximising the opportunity to capture scale.

On the demand side, the digital purchasing propensity of the bottom of the pyramid can be expanded by increasing its ability and willingness to spend hard-earned money on digital products and services. For example, digitisation can become an income-generating tool, either directly through employment opportunities in the information, communications and technology sector, or indirectly by providing access to information. We can increase the willingness to spend by expanding the availability of content and applications that address the basic economic and social needs of excluded populations.

As developing countries look to increase their level of digitisation and to compete with wealthier economies, their best bet is to close the digital divide between the richest and poorest in their own societies. Many developing economies have impressive achievements in the digital arena, as China and India have demonstrated. They can build on this success by giving the bottom of the pyramid the opportunity to participate in the digital revolution.

The authors: Bahjat El Darwiche is a partner, Milind Singh, a principal, and Sandeep Ganediwalla and Rawia Abdel Samad, associates, with Booz & Company

Published: November 15, 2012 04:00 AM


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