(Note: I’m going to ask you to contribute to this at the end, so start thinking…!)
I just got back from another trip to Kenya. This time I spent a week with Ken Banks as part of a workshop on social media in Africa, put on by some really smart people (thanks Mika and Linda!). As generally happens when we get in a room together, we start talking over some ideas that are bigger than what either of us are up to at the moment.
This time the discussion revolved around developing mobile phone applications in, and for, places like Africa. It’s becoming quite popular to create mobile products and services, but it’s still fairly new. It has only been a couple years since we first started seeing applications focused on this specific kind market. What have we learned? Are there any best practices on design and implementation? Is there a notebook for new developers to go to to learn what to do (and more important, what not to do)?
As Ken states, “In my experience, many social mobile projects fail in the early stages. Lack of basic reality-checking and a tendency to make major assumptions are lead culprits, yet they are relatively easy to avoid.”
If there’s anyone who knows this field it’s Ken. He’s not only a thinker in this space, but he’s a doer as well. His application, FrontlineSMS, has cut it’s teeth here and he’s had to answer all the hard questions, which everyone else has benefited from. He has successfully created a basic platform that many other applications can build on.
Make sure you read Kens observations and tips on building mobile phones for developing countries.
Here are a couple:
- Never let a lack of money stop you. If considerable amounts of funding are required to even get a prototype together, then that’s telling you something – your solution is probably overly complex.
- Ensure that the application can work on the most readily and widely available hardware and network infrastructure.
- Bear in mind that social mobile solutions need to be affordable, ideally free.
- The next generation of Africans are more mobile literate than you (or me), so when you develop something make sure you keep it open enough for them to evolve its use.
- Develop for the common denominator – that is SMS services only. If you have the time, and see a need later, then go for the fancy Java apps.
- Data services, like SMS are a good starting point, but don’t overlook the use and integration of voice. This is especially relevant in areas where local language dialects and literacy are an issue.
- If you can, provide a basic service, and let the local users develop a plan for how to use it in their area.
Here’s where you chime in on what you think people should know before they build a mobile phone service or product for Africa. Got any tips for? Lessons to remember? Make sure you do/don’t do something?