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Movirtu – building a virtual mobile phone for the developing world

Nigel Waller wants to bring 'virtual mobile phone' service to the Bottom of the Pyramid – the poorest of the world's poor.

By Esha ChhabraDowser.org / October 25, 2011

Nigel Waller, founder and CEO of Movirtu, is trying to spread the availability of mobile phones to the poorest of the poor by basing phone service "in the cloud," rather than being dependent on individuals owning a mobile phone.

Courtesy of Dowser.org

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Heard of cloud computing? Probably, yes. Heard of the cloud phone? Similar idea, different medium.

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Despite the growing number of mobile phone users worldwide, many still have to borrow phones to make a call. Such calls can be accompanied with “borrowing premiums,” escalating costs for users.

So, why not give everyone a virtual phone number, something that they can plug into any mobile, determine how much talk time or credit they have, and use accordingly?

That’s what Nigel Waller, founder and CEO of Movirtu, is aspiring to do. With pilot testing under way in Madagascar, Waller and his colleagues are building a virtual mobile phone.

What started out as a business model for developing markets could easily transpire into a model for developed markets as well, Mr. Waller explains.

“We plan to expand into over a dozen markets by the end of 2012 and extend our offerings into the Western market, making the innovative steps to take our Cloud Phone technology from BoP [the Bottom of the Pyramid] into Western markets.”

Before that happens, though, Waller and his colleagues are completing their pilot testing and research in Madagascar, where the idea first became a reality with the help of telecomm giant Airtel, which has a strong infrastructure already in place on the island.

Essentially, this "hardware free" approach to the mobile will eliminate borrowing fees, keep information secured in an account that only the user can access, reduce the need for everyone to purchase a phone, and diminish the hassle of lost or damaged SIM cards.

The inspiration for Movirtu came out of Waller’s travels and experiences in Africa, where he noticed that many families owned only one phone or had to borrow from a friend or use a community phone. Actually, according to Waller, 1 billion people still don’t own a mobile phone, despite escalating numbers of mobile subscribers worldwide.

So, two years ago, he decided to harness more than two decades of professional experience in technology and emerging markets to build a social enterprise by tapping into his network. Even with all his experience and resources, it’s not been easy, Waller explains.

“Most challenging, in terms of getting the enterprise off the ground, has been working with the mobile operators," he says. "They do not move quickly, and it takes a large amount of sustained effort to demonstrate not only the business case and viability of our products from a marketing and commercial aspect, but also the technical nature of our products ,and their ability to integrate within an existing network environment without crashing or hampering the existing systems. That, in turn, has taken time and money to overcome.”

Such challenges don’t appear to dissuade Movirtu, though. Its aim is to reach 1 million customers in the first year, with expansions into a number of markets across Africa and Asia by the end of next year. Additionally, Waller wants to apply the same principles to Western markets, enabling users here to use a mobile identity to access their cell phones.

This ambitious project has found early supporters. THe UN-affiliated initiative Business Call to Action has partnered with Movirtu, as well as one of India’s largest telcomm operators, Airtel.

While Movirtu has garnered early approval for the idea, Waller cautions that “funding an enterprise remains a huge hurdle to overcome and cannot be underestimated.”

Despite the obstacles, he says he feels that such social enterprises can “bring new meaning into your life.

“After spending years working for large enterprises, being able to take your knowledge and experience and apply it for the good of people does bring refreshment into your life – think of it as an 'Over 40' thing to do," he said.

This article originally appeared at Dowser.org.

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