Mobile phones continue to be a major force of change across the globe, transforming how people work and relate, significantly boosting and enriching livelihoods and lifestyles.

The extent of the impact the mobile technology is having in the world has been brought home by a new GSMA report. The survey has calibrated how mobile phones have shaped the attainment of social development goals (SDGs) as defined in the United Nation’s Agenda 2020.

The survey, 2020 Mobile Industry Impact Report: Sustainable Development Goals, indicates that the mobile industry has had a mixed fortune on the impact of SDGS, but overall it has made important contribution and will continue to do so going forward.

In infrastructure, mobile telephony has had the highest impact at 63 out of a full score of 100. While in effort to end hunger mobile has had the lowest impact to end hunger at 40, as well as in SDG goals such as eradicating poverty, protecting life on earth and promoting peace and justice, all of which have scored 44.

The reduction in poverty, the report notes is slowing down while the number of people suffering from hunger is on the rise.

With the world challenges mounting, the report says mobile phone will potentially continue to play a crucial role as its uptake is on the rise, even in remote corners of the world and by the poorest people.

According to GSMA, mobile phones are now used by around three fifths of the world’s poorest 40 percent, equivalent to 1.9 billion people, an increase of 200 million people since 2015, when the SDG goals were set.

Both feature phones and smartphones have helped to unlock untapped potential in both rural and non-rural firms, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), allowing them to reach more customers in non-local markets during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mats Granryd, Director General of GSMA notes that mobile phones will, going forward, play a central role in resolving some of the world’s pressing challenges. This, he added, has been demonstrated in the current period when the world is grappling with the adverse effects of Covid-19 pandemic.  

“With half of humanity in lockdown in 2020, mobile networks were stress-tested but withstood the unexpected massive surges in data use,” said Granry, adding that the technology will be a key pillar of economic revival post- Covid-19.

“Thanks to continual investment in recent years, mobile infrastructure has proved robust and resilient, serving as the cornerstone of continuity and recovery,” he said.

The  GSMA survey says the average SDG impact score across the 17 Goals increased to 48 in 2019, translating to the industry achieving 48 percent of its potential contribution to the SDGs – up from 33 percent in 2015.

Since 2015, the report reveals, mobile connectivity has contributed an incremental Sh37 trillion in global GDP, or 4 percent of overall growth.

“In the same timeframe, the industry has increased global employment by around 5 million,” it states.  

In 2019, mobile technology supported about 30 million jobs, with the use of mobile technology powering a global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that is 10 times greater than the global carbon footprint of the mobile industry itself.

During the same year, 1.6 billion mobile subscribers used their phones to improve or monitor their health, representing an increase of 330 million since 2018. Moreover, 2.3 billion subscribers used mobile financial services, an increase of 620 million since 2018.

“By the end of 2019, 5.1 billion people or 66 percent of the global population were using a mobile phone, an increase of 600 million people from 2015. In addition, 3.8 billion people or 49 percent of the global population were using mobile internet, representing an increase of 1.1 billion people since 2015.”

With over 820 million people being undernourished globally as at 2018, mobile technology has contributed to food security through improvements to agricultural practices, nutritional knowledge and household food security.

Mobile devices, satellites, drones and other high-tech solutions have been key to improving the efficiency of the production of agricultural goods. “SDG 2 was the second-most improved SDG in 2019 in terms of industry impact, with rural mobile penetration reaching 59 percent in low income countries.

“Furthermore, 12 percent of rural subscribers used mobile agricultural services and 27 percent used mobile financial services in 2019.”

But the mobile industry has seen the greatest impact on education, where an additional 610 million individuals used mobile phones to access educational information for themselves or their children in 2019, taking the total to 2 billion people, an equivalent of 40 percent of mobile subscribers.

Even with conversations of 5G and 6G doing rounds on technology circles, the report shows that the world is still depending on 3G but an enormous growth of 4G is happening.

“Between 2015 and 2019, 3G population coverage increased from 83 percent to 92 percent, equivalent to 900 million additional people covered, while 4G population coverage grew from 55 percent to 85% percent, equivalent to 2.5 billion additional people covered,” reads the research findings.

This infrastructure, it notes, plays a vital role in stimulating inclusive and sustainable development, as well as greater innovation across communities.

“The pandemic has demonstrated the critical importance of telecommunications networks and connected technologies. From enabling essential services such as telehealth, online learning, remote working to e-commerce, the impact of technology has been enormous,” says Andrew Penn, Telstra CEO.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has catapulted the growth of technology across the globe, the study found out that the rate of mobile and mobile internet adoption could slow in low- and middle-income countries due to income loss among individuals and businesses, while the economic uncertainty could also constrain 5G rollouts and enterprise funding for IoT projects.

However, the survey warns that if existential drawbacks continue, the SDGs will not be achieved in ten years’ time.

“When usage of mobile services grows, so does the impact on the SDGs. Unless the mobile industry and its partners act faster, we estimate that the industry will achieve around 70 percent of its full potential impact on the SDGs by 2030,” it predicts.

Sanda Ojiambo, CEO and Executive Director of the United Nations Global Compact sees a long way for all nations to achieve the goals, and calls for multi-stakeholder collaboration to push attainment to 100 percent.

“We are still a long way from achieving the goals set forth in the 2030 Agenda, but the map to success is before us. For the mobile industry and the business community at large, the signposts are leadership, collaboration, investment and innovation. At this defining moment, let us move forward, united in the business of a better world,” she says.

While the pandemic has further emphasized the importance of connectivity, it has also accentuated the global digital divide, as those that are unable to realise the benefits of digital technology are falling further behind in a post-Covid-19 world.

“It is clear that the time for incremental improvements has passed, and the “new normal” will require transformational change. In business enterprises large and small, transformation begins with incorporating sustainability into their core values,” says Ms Ojiambo.

During the global crisis, the mobile sector has been uniquely positioned to influence shared future outcomes and provide support to every stakeholder if a significant impact on the entire economy is to be realised.

“We are thus advancing a digital transformation agenda with sustainability as the central principle. The SDGs lie at the core of human development and progress – the ICT sector’s commitment to contributing towards these goals is a testimony of business as a force for good,” notes Sunil Bharti Mittal, Bharti Airtel Chairman.