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Guy Krief says there are many emerging markets around the world where people only have a phone to get on the internet and many of the online transactions are unsafe because of advertising fraud and harmful software.
Krief is the head of Upstream, a Greek online education company that offers affordable Internet access and a mobile platform designed to protect users and offer them many valuable services.
The company, founded in 2001 in Athens, works with 60 mobile operators in more than 45 countries, providing 1.2 billion people with safe digital transactions and other services through its mobile platform.
The company’s platform monitors customer acquisitions, the delivery of digital services and the billing and monetization of digital services and goods in emerging markets. Upstream hopes to serve the estimated 3 billion people globally who are ready to go online but don’t have regular access to the internet.
“Recall the revolution the internet brought in Western markets. Multiply this by 10 and you will understand what is happening in emerging countries, and we’re there to enable it,” Krief says.
“These are markets where people never had access to a desktop computer,” he adds. “Their mobile phones are their first connected device.” In emerging markets, one out of two mobile users are offline because they run out of data, he says.
Benefits for people in emerging markets
Internet access is very expensive in emerging markets, Krief says. The price of data in Nigeria or Brazil is many times more expensive than in Germany. Many users in emerging markets run out of data quickly because they buy limited amounts of internet access using scratch cards.
Upstream offers mobile services such as Zero D, which provides access to internet essentials even when people run out of data. A user can get free access to the basics of the internet, such as news, education services and personal messaging, because Zero D is funded by advertising.
Upstream also offers a product called Secure D, which makes the internet safe for mobile phone users in emerging markets. Secure D protects mobile operators and their subscribers against online transaction fraud and the depletion of people’s data allowance. In the last 12 months, Secure D has been deployed in 12 countries through 80 mobile operators.
The EIB gave Upstream a EUR 25 million loan to help it expand and work on research and development.
Because Upstream operates in emerging markets, the company was struggling to get financing from European and American banks.
Andreas Aristotle Papadimitriou, an EIB loan officer, says Upstream has done “exactly what its founders thought it could do, basically turning poor people more into middle class people in the emerging markets.”
The local touch
George Kalyvas, a senior vice president with Upstream, says it is important to make sure people have access to the internet over mobile devices, because many of the company’s mobile offerings are designed to make lives better. For example, English language lessons are an extremely popular service provided by the Upstream platform, and it is also possible to access basic health information, farming tips and other information especially important for rural areas.
Upstream ensures that its services are relevant in local markets, Kalyvas says. The company works closely with local mobile operators and has local employees in markets served by its platform. Upstream has grown fast. In 2007, there were 35 people working in three markets, but today Upstream has over 300 employees in 45 markets.
“We are now working towards fair and equal access to information, so that people in emerging economies can actually be enabled the way the internet has enabled all of us in the West,” says Krief, the company’s chief executive. “This is a very important part of why we get up and come to work.”