The benefits of mobile phones in Africa, the big US corporate polluters and Wal-Mart moves on employee benefits access

The power of phones in Africa

There are nearly 400 million mobile phone subscribers across Africa – far surpassing Europe and the US. Africa is one of the largest and fastest growing mobile markets in the world.

According to a new report by sustainability research and consulting company Manifest Mind on Africa’s mobile telecommunications market, the proliferation of mobile phone use throughout the continent has resulted in some impressive cultural, social and economic developments. But it also warns of several major environmental and infrastructural problems on the horizon.

On the positive side, the mobile phone has served as the technological gateway for many in Africa, helping to increase literacy rates, provide critical market information to farmers and growing businesses, boost awareness about women’s rights, increase health knowledge through new mobile apps, enable online banking and social networking, and spread local and global culture.

At the same time, mobile phone use has significant room to grow – 60% of the population still lacks access to a mobile phone. This raises concerns about Africa’s infrastructure ability to cope with demand.

While the continent has increased its electricity capacity over recent years and received support from programmes such as the US’s Power Africa scheme (worth $9bn), it’s unlikely that Africa will have sufficient investment or capacity to build the infrastructure needed to support the growing demand for electricity. Carol Stimmel, chief executive of Manifest Mind, says: “Energy poverty is a global health crisis and should be treated with the same attention that deadly diseases are.”

The report also highlights growing e-waste from the improper dismantling and disposing of mobile phones, which contain about 60 different elements, many of which are hazardous. Without the right recycling systems in place, Africa could soon face environmental and health repercussions.

However, if African countries can efficiently develop processes to save the precious metals used in mobile phones that are currently being discarded, Manifest Mind believes Africa will not only “contribute to a more sustainable world,” but also significantly profit from the savings.

The report concludes that these issues require coordinated, high-level planning and investment to expand the continent’s electricity grid and improve mobile recycling systems. Renewable energy such as solar and wind power can help bridge the gap.

Additionally, the report stresses the importance of ongoing financing and business support for early-stage African mobile companies, which have already helped educate and empower so many.

“Mobile technology improves the delivery of health services, helps raise the standard of living, and is driving overall economic growth in the region,” Stimmel says. “Africa is indeed poised for extraordinary growth, but requires a unique strategic view for both short- and long-term advantage.”

Biggest US air polluters revealed

Precision Castparts, DuPont, Biomet, Bayer and Dow Chemical are the largest corporate air polluters in the US, according to the fifth edition of the Toxic 100 Air Polluters report by the Political Economy Research Institute (Peri) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The Toxic 100 Air Polluters ranks corporations on current Forbes 500, Fortune 500 and Standard & Poor’s large company lists, and relies on publicly available and self-reported facility data used in the US Environmental Protection Agency’s risk-screening environmental indicators (RSEI).

The primary figure used to rank companies’ air pollution is the “toxic score”, which takes into account the quantity of chemicals released, their estimated toxicity, their modelled dispersion into the area surrounding the facility, and modelled population exposure.

The largest polluter, Precision Castparts, has a toxic score of 16.6 million, and releases 110,000 pounds (50 tonnes) of toxic pollutants. DuPont’s toxic score is 7.1 million, and it emits 10.94m pounds (4,960 tonnes) of toxic pollutants. Compare that to the 99th and 100th ranked companies, Hess and Newell Rubbermaid, which had a toxic score of 89,830 and 84,553 respectively.

Peri researchers point to several big areas of weakness with the publicly available data. For example, facilities may report incorrect or imprecise data; the figures address long-term health effects but neglect short-term health risks. And while the data covers 600 toxic chemicals, it does not include other chemicals that often pose major health risks, such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter.

“RSEI scores should encourage people to communicate with regulators and companies regarding the nature of the releases and population exposure,” says Michael Ash, professor of economics and policy at Amherst. “Our hope is to encourage dialogue and public participation to make best use of right-to-know data.”

Thinx has a mission

A New York-based social enterprise is helping women tackle mishaps that occur during their monthly periods, and supporting women’s empowerment in the developing world. The Thinx underwear brand was inspired by the founders’ personal experiences of distress caused by an unexpected period.

Additionally, through their travels in the developing world, the founders met girls who were too ashamed to attend school during their periods because they were too poor to buy protection. Founder Miki Agrawal says about 67 million women worldwide lack proper protection during their periods, and millions of girls are at risk of dropping out of school because they’re so behind from missing classes.

Through two successful crowdfunding campaigns and three years of product development, Thinx launched its first collection of four styles that use soft, super-thin materials that are stain and leak resistant, wick moisture and provide antibacterial support.

Thinx has also partnered with the Ugandan social enterprise AfriPads, which employs local African women to produce reusable sanitary pads. Each purchase of Thinx underwear will fund the production of seven pads. Agrawal says her organisation is also working with the BlinkNow Foundation to produce sanitary pads for women in Nepal and India, providing protection and helping to build a sustainable local economy.

“The future of entrepreneurship is social entrepreneurship,” says Agrawal. “Anyone can create a product, but can you elevate the conversation by giving people the opportunity to talk about a global issue through a sexy, beautiful product? That’s our mission.”

Tech giants promote global web access

Only one-third of the world’s population has access to the internet. A new organisation called, founded by tech giants including Facebook, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung, is working to connect the billions of people without internet access through a series of individual and joint programmes, and by mobilising governments, academics and others to take action.

The organisation will focus on three areas: making internet access more affordable, investing in tools that make data more efficient (for better internet experiences), and helping businesses make it easier for people to access the internet.

“Mobile [technology] has helped to transform many people’s lives in the emerging regions where often a computing device will be the first and only mobile experience they’ll ever have,” says Paul Jacobs, chairman of the board and chief executive of Qualcomm. “Having shipped more than 11bn chips, Qualcomm is a market leader that is committed to the goal of bridging the digital divide. We’re pleased to be a part of and to be working with key players to drive this initiative forward.”

Wal-Mart extends health coverage to same-sex couples

America’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, has added same-sex-couple health coverage to its latest roster of full-time employee benefits. In a leaked memo, Wal-Mart’s senior vice-president for benefits, Sally Welborn, says the company-wide change was a “business decision, not a moral or political decision”.

“The Affordable Care Act inextricably linked health insurance with employment,” the memo says. “As such, for our associates for whom we offer health insurance, we want to be sure we are providing access to as many individuals and their families as possible.”

The memo acknowledges that 28 out of 30 key Wal-Mart competitors already offer spouse/partner benefits to their employees. And some observers say the cost of expanding coverage was a major factor behind Wal-Mart’s delay.

Responding, a Wal-Mart spokesman says: “We’re continually working to keep costs down – for both our associates and the company. Our benefits team and executive leadership evaluate our health plans every year and take many things into consideration when determining if we will make any changes. Since we operate in all 50 states, we thought it was important to develop a single definition for all Wal-Mart associates in the US so that we’re able to ensure consistency across the country.”

The change will be implemented on January 1 2014.

Africa  BrandWatch  mobile phones  Wal-Mart 

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