Last month’s World Population Day put the challenges and realities of sustainable development in the spotlight. The statistics are staggering, especially in emerging markets such as India and Africa, where the population is likely to double by 2050.
While a growing population is arguably good for business (thanks to greater demand, more competition and a surge in foreign capital infusion), it also highlights the urgency to enable sustainable development to meet the needs of the most vulnerable communities. Entrepreneurs are at the forefront of this issue thanks to their lean approach and problem-solving skills. Here are four ways entrepreneurs can help support sustainable development.
Today, at least 1.7 billion people are still unbanked. Entrepreneurs can help advance financial inclusion by taking advantage of the growing smartphone penetration rate. According to GSMA, smartphone penetration will reach 80 percent globally by 2025. This smartphone revolution opens the door to unique mobile financial services and business models such as mobile-only banking, mobile money, carrier billing, micro-insurance and micro-finance.
Branch, Flutterwave, and Paga are among some of the most promising startups building such networks. In turn, these startups helped expose the staggering contrast between the number of mobile phones and that of bank accounts in Sub-Saharan Africa. There are 747 million SIM connections in the region, representing 75 percent of the population, and only about 300 million adults with a bank account. With a mobile-first mindset, fintech entrepreneurs and innovative financial institutions can build user-centric services that reach far more people than traditional financial institutions.
Despite the explosive growth of mobile phones in emerging markets, broadband penetration remains low, with only 25 percent of the African population having access to Internet services.
The problem is compounded by the fact that the average cost of 1 gigabyte of data in Africa is over 7 percent of an average person’s income. By investing in innovative Internet technology such as Virtual Radio Access Network (or vRAN) and by partnering with mobile network operators, entrepreneurs can offset some of the broadband costs and pass these savings to customers.
The radio wave technology is particularly appealing to telecom companies as it uses a software-based approach to reduce capital expenditure, boost Internet speed and solve last-mile connectivity challenges. India’s Bharti Airtel recently deployed a vRAN solution across multiple major cities in India to lay the foundation for introducing 5G services. In the U.S., wireless broadband startup Starry filed to raise up to $125 million to bring affordable broadband to market using radio towers and high-rise-mounted transmitters.
Another great example of a company repurposing wireless networks is Climacell, which built an intelligent platform for advanced weather forecasting. The startup recently raised a $23 million Series C round to tackle climate change at a global scale and to strengthen its research and development efforts in the wireless and IoT sectors.
Investors and regulators need to support such companies with greater access to capital and more startup-friendly legislations that will help them build groundbreaking technologies and develop more affordable means to access the Internet.
As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has noted, the pandemic is widening existing inequalities and vulnerabilities for the female population. Curfews have led to a significant spike in gender-based violence in countries such as Turkey as well as Argentina, where emergency calls for domestic violence cases have increased by 25 percent since the lockdown on March 20. In Zimbabwe, the number of caesarean sections performed decreased by 42 percent in the first four months of the year compared with the same period in 2019.
To tackle these challenges, stakeholders should empower women with the resources they need to build wealth while launching new businesses. Organizations such as Nigeria’s Co-Creation Hub and She Leads Africa have built great programs to support young women with business mentoring, technology access and fundraising.
These high-growth programs will ultimately lead to more female entrepreneurs addressing critical challenges. For instance, female-led MIT startup Bloomer Tech recently raised $3 million to develop an electrocardiogram bra to help women with heart conditions, as cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death globally.
Education is key to reducing gender inequality, and entrepreneurs can leverage their technology expertise to reshape this sector in a post-pandemic world. In Senegal, the ESTEL Business School partnered with the French edtech startup OnlineFormaPro to introduce an e-learning platform that digitizes national academic curricula.
In Morocco, KoolSkools raised over $400,000 to help schools go digital. And in the U.S., Knack partnered with the University of Florida to provide free remote tutoring and mobile-friendly virtual teaching. These edtech startups turned the pandemic challenge into promising business opportunities that could potentially boost both the education sector and human capital.
Over the past 70 years, the world population tripled to new heights and is expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, an increase of more than 25 percent from 2020. If left unaddressed, this growth may exacerbate the problems developing countries are already facing. With record unemployment rates and growing signs of a prolonged global recession, stakeholders need to turn to entrepreneurs to ensure sustainable development worldwide.
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