Yesterday had good meetings, but today was amazing.
Cellcom in Liberia
I had a chance to sit down with the CEO of Cellcom today, Avishai Marziano. Cellcom is the second largest mobile phone operator in Liberia by subscription, right behind Lonestar. They have very good coverage of the country (all the main roads and towns), and they do a great job of marketing their services. We got into a nice heated debate over the value of Ushahidi, and if there is any business model to use it for carriers like him (turns out there isn’t, except that the long-term health of the country is in his best interest).
We then got into some great discussions about mobile phone payments and banking. Specifically, the pros and cons of an MPESA approach (carrier monopoly, bank agnostic) compared to a Wizzit (carrier agnostic, bank monopoly). How everyone is jumping at using these services to gain more subscribers, and not to really add another value added revenue stream into their company.
The final part was when he showed me their newest prototype of an iPhone-like touchscreen mobile phone that runs with dual SIM cards, has radio and all the other goodies you would expect. Right now, it needs a little more polish, though the form feel is good and if they drop the price point down it will find buyers. Selling a dual SIM phone is a tricky business though. It’s definitely what African users want, but it’s also a tricky thing to market, when you’re basically giving a free slot away to a competitor. (no pictures, sorry)
Lunch was at a local dive, over a bowl of rice and spicy fish gravy/soup. It had no airflow, and was really much like eating in a sauna. However, it was worth it because I think I might have found one of the only true hardcore hacker types that is in Monrovia today. John Etherton has been here for a year, working on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission from Georgia Tech. He’s done some really cool stuff with GPS-enabled PDAs in rural Liberia, and is the only guy I’ve met who could give me true rundown of all things mobile and internet in the area.
It turns out that there is decent mobile coverage of the populated areas of the country. The best any operator can do is Edge/GPRS, so no 3G anywhere, but that’s better than nothing. It also means that almost everywhere that you get network access, you can also send data. Cellcom and Lonestar have the best rural coverage, and Comium is the easiest ISP to start using, but for dedicated access most go through Cellcom or one of the smaller ISPs.
Alie and the Youth Crime Watch team
Alie is the newest Ushahidi dev, originally an ASP and .NET guy, he’s now starting to get involved with the program. You can read the full story of how I got to meet him and how this transpired on the Ushahidi blog.