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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Applying the Long-tail to the African Mobile Space

The mobile applications space is getting more attention each day. Ken Banks has written up a good piece, in which he applies the long-tail theory to mobile applications in areas like Africa.

The Social Mobile Long-tail

Finally, we’re left with the simple, low-tech, appropriate technology solutions with great opportunities for rapid, hassle-free replicability among grassroots NGOs, represented in green. These projects generally get the lowest level of publicity, if any, since few have an international profile of any kind. Notoriously hard to communicate with, and with little or no money, it’s perhaps no surprise that most of the attention on the long tail is elsewhere.

What Ken is getting at is an important concept, one that too many of us forget as we generally have access to the more powerful phones. Whether it’s dealing with NGO-related initiatives, or traditional business projects, we need to be reminded that creating platforms for the lowest common denominator will have the greatest impact in the shortest amount of time.

Interestingly enough, we see this with an application that is “big” in the West: Twitter. It’s a simple concept based on 140-character SMS messaging and a simple way to share and follow communications by others. Of course, they’ve added additional web and email functionality to it, but the base concept is so simple it’s almost painful.

When we apply these same thoughts to Africa, what do we get? Unfortunately, not that much (yet). The top three that come to mind are Ken Banks with his FrontlineSMS tool for non-profits utilizing basic SMS services, Wizzit a South African mobile banking solution that uses USSD, and Manobi that offers market and trading information for Senegalese farmers.

The good news is that we’re only scratching the surface. I hope that more tech savvy developers will create applications that work at the end of the long-tail, there’s a lot of people just in Africa waiting for better mobile services.

Further resources:


  1. Thanks for picking up on this, Erik!

    As you know from our various discussions, the ultimate end-game for me in all of this is to come up with a way of allowing the NGOs themselves, on the ground in developing countries, to build their own applications. As you know, I have a few ideas about how we could do this.

    Nathan Eagle, as you highlight, is doing some great work in a related area, empowering computer science graduates to develop mobile apps.

    The new FrontlineSMS, out in May, will have a number of new features, one of which takes me closer to the goal I mentioned above. I’ll keep you posted…


  2. HASH,

    I’m a bit confused by the use of The Long Tail to describe what’s going on here. What you’re saying about replicability is true but it’s not Long Tail. I suppose we could say something like the sum total of localized solutions has a greater reach than the macro-level solutions.

  3. Hash — we just did a review of low-cost SMS tools that allow grassroots activists and NGOs to run SMS campaigns. Unfortunately, our review — available at http://mobileactive.org/mobileactive-releases-do-it-yourself-sms-guide-ngos — shows that we are still a ways away from simple, user-friendly, low cost implementations for NGOs who want to run mobile campaigns, particularly in developing countries. The tools available (and there are many) are often not well supported, not user-friendly, and have only limited functionality. We reviewed all of the tools we thought appropriate for low-cost campaigns, but the promise that these tools seems to imply and that Ken outlines in his post is not real yet — not even with his tool. Please take a look at the review on our wiki!

    All the best,


  4. @Lingamish – You’re right, the traditional use of the “long-tail” might not fit perfectly, however the I think the analogy is that the pareto distribution still fits. In this case it’s about both reach and replicability (like you stated), not just inventory and scarcity.

    @Katrin – I just read that review after I posted this article yesterday, and came across a couple other solutions that I didn’t even know existed. Corinne did an excellent job.

    I hope that we’ll start seeing improvement in the tools available, as well as more options that fit the multitude of needs in both the non-profit and for-profit sectors. What I was getting at in this piece is that there just aren’t enough solutions out there.

  5. Thanks for a really interesting post.

    Tactical Tech have just finished the draft version of our Mobile Advocacy Toolkit The material is viewable in draft form on a project wiki at http://wiki.mobiles.tacticaltech.org/index.php/Main_Page

    We did a review of some of the tools and services which are available in this space – http://wiki.mobiles.tacticaltech.org/index.php/Tools – and I can only concur that, apart from Frontline SMS, most of the technology is challenging to use.

    The next few years are going to be a really interesting time – lets hope the mobiles space starts to open up some more!

  6. @Becky – thanks for the link to Tactical Tech’s review. I’ve added it to the list of resources on the post.

  7. Hi Erik

    In response to some of the comments…

    The use of the “long tail” to me seemed like the best way of visualising the current state of play, even though its origins are from elsewhere. In terms of the focus areas, the need and the numbers of NGOs, I think the shape accurately represents what’s happening out there right now. It’s good to see this being debated.

    In terms of the tools, FrontlineSMS was developed and rapidly deployed in Beta well over two years ago based on a hunch, but one which obviously seems quite well founded today. Now, with a solid base of NGO users in the developing world, the feedback provided has given great insight into what else it needs to do and what it needs to do better, and we’re working on finally taking it out of Beta now. Expect the new platform-independent version, with a whole range of additional and improved features, in May.

    Our hopes to provide more relevant tools will rise or fall on our ability to create the right applications development environment not just for, but in, the long tail.


  8. Spaced out there… Thanks for the reply. I’m with you on this.

  9. About Wizzit? Where is it at right now in South Africa, in terms of user acceptance and number of users? How is it doing? Its a great concept with the potential to really make a change in the lives of those it seeks to serve, but people we spoke to in townships, including Alex, right next door to Wizzit’s hq in Sandton, just hadn’t heard about it or it hadn’t filtered through to them that such an account could be for them so easily. Any current reports or news on Wizzit would be appreciated.

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