A Q&A with Movirtu's Nigel Waller

by Vikki Chowney on 18th September 2009

The first in a series of interviews with Founders/Managing Directors of mobile-centric businesses, we kick off with a brief chat with Nigel Waller.Movirtu in use...

We’ll let Nigel tell you more about Movirtu below, but in brief, it’s a for-profit organisation that provides innovative mobile technology and business models for wireless telecommunication service providers servicing rural poor communities in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Really Mobile: For those that don’t know anything about Movirtu, can you describe the company in one sentence?

Nigel:  Think of us as cloud computing for the mobile phone; we have created patent pending mobile technology which provides device-independent mobile services, allowing users a virtual mobile phone number and account that can be accessed via a PIN from any phone.

RM: So what was the motivation to set up the company?

Nigel:  For the last five years, mobile operators in the emerging markets have been asking me to give them solutions specifically aimed at people living below the poverty line and earning less than $2 a day.  The operators were telling me that they cannot simply take phones and services designed for Western European markets and reduce the price, they needed specific designs for this market.  One day the spark of inspiration came; we can access email and cloud computing services from any thin client PC in the world, why can we not do the same with a phone?  Why does a phone number have to be tied to a phone? Why not make the device independent? With that we re-mortgaged the house and set up Movirtu.

RM: The predicted figures that the next million phone users will come from the third world (the ‘bottom of the pyramid’), is that an old figure that’s now been reached, or how far away are you from reaching that goal?

Nigel: Sorry to correct you, it’s actually the next BILLION phone users, but that figure is still correct.  Out of the 6.7 billion people in the world, there are 4 billion phone connections but only 3.5 billion people that actually own a phone or SIM, the difference is made up from people with multiple SIMs or handsets.  This leaves 3.5 billion people without a phone or SIM.

Of course there are people at the bottom of the pyramid that may never own a phone, but we are helping the operators service the people at the ‘top’ that can’t afford a phone or SIM, or do not want to own a phone or SIM because of the risk of it being stolen.  Remarkably these people still spend 5-20% of their income on mobile phone services, even when they do not own a phone or SIM.

RM: How closely do you work with handset manufacturers, as surely once the infrastructure and service is in place, the phones themselves are the next barrier?

Nigel: We are device independent so we do not don’t work with the handset manufacturers at present.  As long as the phone manufactures follow GSM specification, our system will work.

RM: Do you work with any NGOs working towards the same goal? (Oxfam for instance…)

Nigel: We have had lots of interest from NGOs that would like to use our infrastructure to host their services, and those that want to partner with us to enhance our joint offerings.  You will see more news shortly as we announce these relationships.

RM: Are there any specific countries that have benefitted particularly from working with you?

Nigel: We do not have a commercial live system yet, but are undergoing pilots.  More news to follow shortly.

RM: Movirtu secured funding from Gray Ghost Ventures Social Investment Holdings and other private investors in May. What will this be spent on, development or implementation?

Nigel: Were scaling up at the moment so the money will be spent on growing our core infrastructure and operations.

RM: What’s the big picture for Movirtu? What are the big goals on the horizon? Is it reaching that bottom of the pyramid, or is it percentage growth of coverage, or something else? How do you measure success?

Nigel: We measure our success not only by the number of people who own one of our Sharepaid accounts, but also on the social impact we are having on the people that use the service, or on people that are sharing phones.

Our goal is that by 2012 we will have touched more than 20m people, either helping them save money by having a mobile phone number or by making them more productive in their normal lives.

A big thanks to Nigel for talking with us, we’ll be watching Movirtu’s progress closely, so will keep you updated with the development of its infrastructure and progress. In the few short weeks since we spoke, the company has announced a second investor – Grassroots Business Fund – and Nigel has been awarded a Fellowship with Poptech.

Good things to come we think.

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