How does mobile Internet access change the lives of the poor? This is the subject of a just-published exploratory study by the University of Cape Town. While far from being a comprehensive piece of work, it does highlight some of the potential and the pitfalls of providing mobile Internet services to poor people in developing countries, such as South Africa.

Tellingly, the researchers struggled to find people in low-paid jobs that had a mobile phone capable of more than just voice calls and text messages. And many of those who had a GPRS-enabled handset, weren’t aware that it could access the mobile Internet. Even amongst those who knew they had Internet access, most were only aware of the mobile instant messaging application.

The researchers ended-up interviewing just nine people from Cape Town in low-income jobs, including cleaners, construction workers and cooks, all of whom used the mobile Internet. The researchers concluded that the mobile Internet delivers “limited” economic value to the respondents, primarily through small cost savings on travel and communication services.

Only three of the respondents had used the mobile Internet to search for employment and none were successful, but four respondents said they used mobile banking on a regular basis, saving them money and time. The study concluded that that mobile Internet’s most significant role in the lives of their interviewees was in strengthening social ties, primarily because of the popularity of instant messaging.

While much larger-scale research needs to be done, this study underlines the need for the development of many more mobile applications and services tailored-made to meeting the needs of poor people in developing countries. These applications and services clearly should to be able to run on low-end handsets, while being very easy to discover and use. Nokia’s Life Tools and Microsoft’s OneApp initiatives are a step in the right direction, but there is certainly a need for much more innovation in this area.

Otherwise, there is a risk that the mobile Internet will initially flop in the developing world, just as it did in Europe and the U.S.