Category Archives: Mobile

Quick Hits Around African Tech: July 2012

Africa’s Mobile Stats and Facts 2012

Few organizations do as good of a job as Praekelt in creating well-designed applications that are used by millions of people in the continent. A couple times a year, they take that same level of quality and create new videos and resources to better showcase Africa’s tech statistics. Here’s their newest video.

Game Creators: an Interview of Maliyo Games in Nigeria

Good interview of Maliyo Games founder and the opportunity in Africa’s gaming space.

Why do you think the African audience is looking for African games instead of Farmville or Mafia Wars?

“It’s not so much what they are looking for, more what is being pushed to them. Our games ‘Okada Ride’, ‘Mosquito Smasher’ and ‘Adanma’ have far more local relevance than Mafia Wars. Nigerian music and Nollywood movies have a strong appeal to the local and diasporan consumers. We are riding this trend and thus far we are seeing traction.”

Check out Maliyo’s website to get their games.

Opera’s “State of the Mobile Web” for Africa 2012

Opera puts together a great resource of user-based statistics [PDF link]. It’s a country-by-country breakdown of mobile penetration, user growth, top domains and top handsets used. Here are a few of the interesting tidbits:

  • Across Africa, data growth seems to outpace page-view growth. This fact suggests that Africans are browsing larger pages and most likely, using richer, more advanced websites.
  • Facebook is the top domain in every country except for these six, where Google leads: Egypt, Guinea, Djibouti, Comoros, Central African Republic, and Algeria.

Mobile Reporting Field Guide

UC Berkeley has created a mobile reporting field guide, useful for people doing data collection and research as well as activist types.

Upcoming Tech Events in 2012

PyCon South Africa – Cape Town, Oct 4-5
DEMO Africa – Nairobi, Oct 24-26
Tech4Africa – Joburg, Oct 31-Nov 1
AfricaCom – Cape Town, Nov 13-15
Mobile Web Africa – Joburg, Nov 28-29

(If you know of other tech events coming up before the end of the year that you think belong here, put it in the comments and I’ll add it later.)

Some Self-Serving Links:

How Safaricom Steals Your Internet Bundle

99% of Kenya’s 6.5m internet users access it via mobile, of which Safaricom owns 77% marketshare.

In Kenya, when you buy a 1.5Gb internet bundle from Safaricom you pay 1000ksh (~$12). You’ve paid for the data, and there is no additional cost to Safaricom if you were to use that data today or a year from now. The whole concept of data bundle expiry is ridiculous, as noted by Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore when he visited the iHub:

“When you go into a petrol station and fill up your car, does the owner of the petrol station tell you to bring it back on Wednesday to take back what’s left in the vehicle? Of course not. So I ask, why the hell are we doing that?”

Bob goes on to say that he isn’t going to be an apologist for this practice, that there is a problem with leaving the data there ad infinitum. That 60 days is probably too short and that Safaricom does need to change how they handle this.

  • Until recently they just held your data hostage. If your data expired, you could recharge with just a few shillings of data, this would re-trigger your “old” data that was past the expiration, and have that available to you again.
  • Today, it is “data gone, money stolen” after expiration. They cut you off if you haven’t used all of your internet bundle in the nominal 7-90 days, no matter how much is remaining.

I brought this up with Bob Collymore, and his chief executives when they visited the iHub earlier this year (see video), at which point he admitted that it was indeed a dubious practice that would be changed to something much more open to users. You’ll see what Bob says at the 1:17 mark in the video below.

Here Bob is on video speaking to this point (I’ve saved the link to go to the right point in the video):

The other day I caught a Tweet from Sunny Bindra about some surprising changes:

Safaricom is actually very responsive on Twitter, probably the best big company on social media in the Kenya. They followed up with Sunny with this:

So, Safaricom didn’t broadcast this significant change in the way data bundles are handled broadly. Apparently, “publicized on our website” means quietly posting a PDF somewhere in the morass that is their website to notify the data using public of the changes.

If you follow the links to the PDF, you’ll find the following:

What is the Validity period?
This is the time frame that you have to use the bundles, when this period elapses it means that any remaining bundles will have expired and will not be available for use.

(Note: there is conflicting information on how long bundles will last, you can only find out by topping up a bundle. I did this for 1.5Gb and found that it’ll last 80 days, not the 30 that they say in the PDF. I don’t know if it’s more/less time for other bundle amounts.)

It’s in Safaricom’s best interest for you to keep buying more data, over and over, even if you haven’t used it. It costs them nothing to let you use it over a longer period of time, or to keep recharging it.

In Conclusion

I’m disappointed with Safaricom, especially after Bob Collymore came to the iHub and said he was going to fix this, not break it further.

This is an outright fleecing that the Safaricom team should be questioned on. In a country where they are the monopoly player on the primary source for people to access the internet, this makes them appear like a bad actor.

Basically, we’ve gone from a bad system that was promised to be made better, but which had a corrective option, to a worse system that has no option.

Other Safaricom Data Miscellany

While I’m at it, let’s go ahead and talk about a few other ways that the data service that Safaricom raises the bar for bonehead usability: buying data bundles themselves.

Case 1:
You used to be able to send airtime to a SIM card on your Safaricom modem. Then, using the inbuilt Safaricom Broadband app, send an SMS to 450 with the amount of the bundle that you wanted to buy, now 450 only seems to work for checking your balance.

With the new service updated in the aforementioned PDF you can now only use the USSD code to update it.

Solution now?
Take the SIM card out of your modem, load it in your phone and do the USSD code. Once confirmation is received, switch that SIM card back to the modem.

Yes, that’s correct. Instead of being using the software that comes native with your modem, you now have to use a phone to update your bundles. Why would you change your system to not work with everything that people use? I’m quite curious actually. I can’t understand this decision from a either the business or the product side at all.

Case 2:
Safaricom wanted to make it easier for people with modems, iPads, Android tablets and smartphones to be able to update their bundle (good idea). They created http://portal.safaricom.com/bundles for this purpose. Let’s say you’re out of data, you have no credit on your phone. How do you get to this page?

Solution?
There are none. You’re stuck because this page isn’t zero-rated. This is mind-boggling in it’s oversight. I have no data, therefore I cannot go to your page to load more data. Seriously… who is the genius that thought this up? Or, probably more accurately, what form of bureaucracy is in place that allows this mediocrity to persist?

Further, if you’re Safaricom who controls 77% of the consumer internet access in Kenya, why wouldn’t you zero-rate your whole Safaricom.com domain and make it free for anyone to surf, even if they don’t have a single shilling on their phone?

[As a resource, here is the latest quarterly Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) PDF report on the tech scene in Kenya.]

The Ground is Barely Scratched: Pivot East 2012


(Thanks to @zulusafari for the images today)

“The ground is barely scratched”, quipped Rebecca Wanjiku, a local tech infrastructure entrepreneur and iHub advisory board member, on stage today at Pivot East. And she’s right, there are a wealth of opportunities in the region. When asked “Why are there so many apps being built in Kenya?”, Kenya’s Permanent Secretary for Info and Comms Bitange Ndemo said, “Because we have so many problems to solve.”

While the iHub might be about innovation, Pivot East is about finding the tech startups with high-growth potential in the region and putting them on stage in front of investors, media and businesses. It’s about finding “what’s next” in East Africa’s vibrant mobile tech scene. Chances are, the best of these startups are providing highly innovative and disruptive solutions.

The startup scene in East Africa has moved wildly beyond where it was even two years ago when the iHub started. Those trying to raise funds for a new company have all of the resources they need at their disposal, including spaces to work with fast bandwidth, mentors and investors that cover the funding spectrum. If the last couple years was about building the ecosystem, this year is about the startups proving themselves and building products.

CX9C1284

Day one of Pivot East is over, and we’ve had a lot more fun than we should be allowed to have. How to find out more and follow for day two tomorrow:

Overall Thoughts

It’s interesting to see how this Pivot East is different than last year’s Pivot 25 (by the way, we changed it to Pivot East so that our friends in South and West Africa could use the brand to do their own events). It seems like the bar has risen, that the pitches are better delivered, that the ideas are a little more sound and business plans are more thought through.

This makes sense, as there has been an influx in pitching and hacking competitions over the last year and people have seen the bar from last year and want to do better themselves. On top of that, the startups in East Africa have had a lot more face-time with investors, who provide pressure to think more deeply about the important questions related to running a business, not just building a cool product.

My friend Michael Duarte, of Duarte Design – the team behind some of the most impressive presentation designs in the world, spent 3 days with the Pivot East finalists last week helping them to hone their decks and tell a story that would resonate with the audience. It’s worked wonders in the way the decks look, as well as the confidence that the startups have when they pitch.

CX9C1131

This year we’ve put the investors into the same area as the judges, allowing both to ask questions and grill the startups. This has turned out surprisingly well, allowing the people with the most interest to ask pointed and meaningful questions.

We’ve had some fantastic pitches thus far, but it’s only day one, so we’ll have 10 more hit the big stage tomorrow. Exciting times!

Fireside Chats

Intermixed between the pitches are “fireside chats”, our fancy term for panels of real movers in different parts of the industry. We try to keep them lively by bringing a good moderator in, and this year TV personality Eric Latiff from KTN has proved to be an outstanding one, making sure we’ve got some lively commentary and tough questions being asked.

CX9C1426

One of my favorite panels was when we had Bob Collymore, CEO of Kenya’s Safaricom on the same stage with Hakim Moi, the CEO of Zain South Sudan. It was a real treat to hear the difference in the way an incumbent mobile operator speaks about their market versus a new one in Africa’s newest country. There’s a lot of opportunity in both countries, but they come from completely different edges of the spectrum.

A particularly interesting challenge was voiced by Bob Collymore on the difficulties of large mobile operator’s on the innovation front. He’s interested in having a “Director of Innovation” in the organization, someone that comes from the outside and on the edge, who can work directly with him to ensure that not only Safaricom, but the rest of the people and organizations within their sphere are thinking broadly about disruption and creating ways for new, small and innovative companies to better interact with each other.

Quick Hits Around African Tech (May 2012)

This last month has kept me too off-kilter to get a good blog post up. However, there have been some very interesting happenings around the continent, here are the ones that caught my attention:

Pivot East

East Africa’s mobile startup pitching competition is just a month away. We announced the top 50 a few weeks ago, and now the 25 Finalists are named as well. Don’t miss this event, June 5 & 6th at the Ole Sereni hotel in Nairobi.

Google Releases “Insights Africa”

This truly deserves a blog post of its own… Google spent a lot of money and time gathering information from over 13,000 people across 6 African countries (Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda) to determine why, and how, people use the internet. This data is all openly available, with an outstanding visualization tool to see what the information really means, and compare it, at InsightsAfrica.com. My chart below is just one example, showing how people access the internet across these 6 countries:

Donors prioritized “industrial policy” in Asia, but “social sectors” in Africa. Why?

Kariobangi writes a compelling blog post on the difference between the aid that was prioritized for Asia versus that for Africa.

TeleRivet: An Android SMS gateway

Similar what Ushahidi offers at SMSsync, TeleRivet is a tool that allows you to use your Android phone as an SMS gateway. It’s more robust, offers an API, and makes it easy for people to get started on SMS and USSD apps. Mbwana Alliy writes up a blog post on why this is important, and the business prospects involved in utilizing this type of service.

WEF: The Global Information Technology Report 2012

The World Economic Forum’s annual report on IT has some good information on emerging markets. You can read it online here. Here’s the video:

ForgetMeNot and the rise of Africa’s Smart(er) Phones

BizCommunity has a good article on ForgetMeNot’s Message Optimizer service’s growth on the continent. This service delivers internet content to users who can only access that information via SMS. Here’s how it works:

“First, a mobile phone subscriber sends an SMS to a given short code. The message is received in the mobile company’s message centre, which then forwards to ForgetMeNot Africa’s internet servers. The servers process, route and deliver the message to the subscriber, who can then respond.”

Kenya study, impact of venture capital on small and medium sized enterprise

VC4Africa reviews a report on VC’s in Kenya. This isn’t just tech, but it is interesting and surfaces some great information. [PDF Download]

“The minimum profit before use of venture capital was Ksh 34, 866. Upon use of venture capital, the minimum profit increased to Ksh 600, 000. This shows an increase in minimum profit of 94%. The maximum profit respondents reported before use of venture capital was Ksh 38, 567,951 which increased to Ksh 62, 864,152 an increase of 63%. The average profit also increased by 69% (from Ksh 7,204,653 to Ksh 12, 202,775)”

Mpesa, a 5 Year Infographic

Just how big has Mpesa become? Take a look [PDF version].

Jason Njoku, Funding and Nigerian Movies Online

In Nigeria, Jason Njoku is at it again, raising $8m from Tiger Global Management, a US-based PE and hedge fund. Here’s an interview with him on Forbes. Iroko Partners is the world’s largest digital distributor of Nigerian movies and African music. The firm is YouTube’s biggest partner in Africa, boasting over 152 million views in 2011.

Will The Real Payment Disruptor Please Stand Up

Farhad Manjoo makes a compelling argument for why the real winners of the payments revolution are the same players we already know, the credit card companies and the banks, in his, “Don’t mess with credit: Why the future of payments is already in your pocket.

“Nearly every start-up working in payments is simply creating a new front end for your credit card. That’s not a small thing; we need new ways to use our credit cards. But we shouldn’t forget the true winners in this new marketplace—whatever innovations we see in payments over the next few years, there’s a very good chance that most of the rewards will flow to Visa and MasterCard.”

This is true… if you live in the US or Europe.

It’s also why Mpesa is so important, as it represents a new form as well as a new source.

Mpesa destroys the paradigm of payments as we knew it

It’s a good thing that Mpesa happened in Africa. It offered a new way of thinking about money and payments, without the legacy baggage of banks and regulations meant for another century. The powerful banking interest were held at bay, not by great power, but by indifference – this is Africa afterall, who cares about this market?

With Mpesa, and without a bank account:

  • People can send and receive money.
  • People can store up to $1000 in the system, creating a pseudo-savings account.
  • There are no credit card companies involved.
  • There are no banks involved.

Mpesa is big now too, big enough to garner a lot of attention from the the credit card companies and banks. M-PESA has over 14 million users in Kenya, 9 million in Tanzania, and hundreds of thousands in Afghanistan and South Africa now too. It now processes more transactions domestically in Kenya than Western Union does globally, somewhere in the range of 25% of Kenya’s GDP is transacted on it.

The banks actively lobby against mobile-based payment and money systems now, globally, as it constitutes a massive competitive threat that they are unable to compete with due to a multitude of reasons, one of which is simple transaction costs. The credit card companies are watching closely too, and moving. Mastercard and Visa both are working on mobile offerings, seeking to link with mobile operators in order to bypass a would be competitor.

Mpesa isn’t perfect – we need a payment system that works across mobile operators and can be synced (easily) with any bank, if needed. While it could improve, it’s still worth pointing out the really big missed opportunity here is by Vodafone. Like I’ve said before, if Mpesa was rolled out at as an independent company led by Michael Joseph, it could battle the credit card companies of the world and unseat them in many markets.

What’s interesting to me is that in the arguments in the US and Europe on “the future of payments” the real innovation, with real numbers, isn’t being mentioned.

Update. some new blog posts on this topic:
Could we live without cash?
Payments, the more things change…

Pivot East: East Africa’s Startup Pitching Competition

Mark your calendars, buy your tickets, submit your applications!

We’re ramping up to the Pivot East pitching competition, where the best startups in East Africa come to show what they have, pitch their startup to investors, media and the judges for a chance to win the prize money.

Pivot East will be held at Ole Sereni Hotel in Nairobi, June 5th and 6th. Last year we had over 100 applications for the 25 slots, and we’re expecting even more after seeing how well Pivot25 did last year (writeups by TIME Magazine and CNN). Last year we saw startups from Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania, and this year we’re hoping to see some from South Sudan and Somalia as well.

WERE2011_PIVOT25-1610

Categories

As last year there are five categories, each of which will have five startups that will pitching in them. If you think you have a prototype, a deck and a business plan to wow everyone with, let’s see it. Applications are open.

  1. Financial Services
  2. Business and Resource Management
  3. Entertainment
  4. Mobile Society
  5. Utilities

Getting more information

Pivot East is put on by the m:lab East Africa, an incubator for startups in the mobile apps and services space. All profits go to support the facility. This year support comes from Samsung, and we’ll be announcing a few more big names in the coming weeks. If you’d like to be one of them, contact us.

If you have any questions, we’re having a meeting a Baraza at the iHub on Monday the 6th of February from 2.30pm to 3.30pm. If you’re a startup wanting to know more, or are media or an investor, come by and talk to the organizing team.

[Note: for more on last year's here is my blog post retrospective.]

UPDATE:
The Pivot East Team will be coming to Uganda on the 20th February 2011 at Makerere. You can book your tickets for the event on the link below:

http://pivotuganda.eventbrite.com/

Infographic: Mobile and Internet in Tanzania

The iHub Research team has worked up an infographic on Tanzania to match their past ones on Kenya and Uganda. We’re looking at 50% mobile phone penetration in Tanzania, with about 22 million connected, where Vodacom has the largest market share at 42%.

The crazy stat is online: In Tanzania, only 2.5% of the population has access to the internet, 80% of those on mobile phones.

Hats off to Patrick Munyi (@ptrckmunyi) for the great design!

The “Mobile Web” as text and voice

The mobile web revolution has already spread around the world. The phase of it that we live in is where we see the internet hitting critical mass based on the availability of web connectivity on mobile devices. Data is widely available, and the costs continue to decrease at an alarming rate. We’re seeing the disruption this is causing already, from businesses to consumers, and within the political structures of entire countries.

THE MOBILE WEB from Duniamedia on Vimeo.

Dunia Media, out of Switzerland, has put together a good video showcasing this change.

Interestingly enough, this video showcases iCow and M-Farm, both providing agricultural data to farmers, not in a browser, but as text or voice messages. One could think the title to be a tad misleading, as the “mobile web” term is largely applied to web interaction on a browser on a phone.

What I like about this take though is this; the internet allows for a paradigm that doesn’t care what device you have, whether PC or phone, as long as you have a database and a channel you’re in the game. As long as the device has some type of text or voice communication it is suddenly a read/write platform.

What we’re seeing in applications coming from Africa is a way to stretch the use-case of “old” messaging technology like SMS, USSD or voice into new ways of data transfer that challenge Western conceptions of what the internet is.

Our Voices Revolutionize the World

[The following is from my Institute of Medicine Talk on communications technologies for violence prevention in Washington DC today. A good background paper to get started on the context of tech in violence prevention is found in this PDF. ]

Something has changed over the last decade.

New technology is lowering barriers. For everyone, and everything. It is disruptive just by existing and by it’s penetration into every corner of the world. We’re talking mobile phones, social media, open data, inexpensive mapping and of course the internet itself.

It can be used just as easily for good as for bad, like any other tool and medium before it. However, the biggest difference in our new technology space, is that what before had at least some gatekeepers, now has few or none.

Inefficiencies in older industries or organizations are areas ripe to be disintermediated in our day of new tools and democratizing of information. Think big media, government, the humanitarian field and even the medical and healthcare industries. Many of these are centralized, top-down information systems which are being forced (or will be forced) to change, or become obsolete and die out in their current form. Not because what they represent is bad, but because how they do it is no longer viable.

Legacy systems and processes were built for a use case that is often decades, if not centuries, old. Internet and mobile phone technology bring new efficiencies and lower barriers. At the very least we can expect new technology to augment what’s there, if it doesn’t displace it entirely.

We’ve see this rippling through the media world for the past few years, large magazines and newspapers are going out of print, major TV networks are struggling. New technology is changing the news paradigm.

We see it in government, from fund raising to how wars are fought, and especially to how a faster moving populace interacts with a slower, archaic and sometimes rotten system that rules them. New technology makes a nimble adversary out of the people that the government is sworn to serve.

We see this in the humanitarian space, where large, slow and ungainly organizations can’t seem to coordinate the resources to meet their mandate, yet raise enough money to keep themselves in business. New technology allows the affected people to self-organize and solve their own problems, and leads us to question why some organizations exist at all.

Let me give you a finite example of this, from my own organization, Ushahidi.

Ushahidi was born out of the post-election violence in 2008. In that first week, a number of us came together as an ad hoc group of volunteers and in 3 days created a website that allowed anyone in the country to send in text messages, emails or web reports on problems happening in their area and we mapped them and put them on a timeline. It was simple, rudimentary even, but it worked.

It worked because people were looking for an outlet, they wanted to let people know what was happening to them.

What we’ve seen since that time is that Ushahidi has proliferated, not because of the technology, but because of the use cases that it makes possible. It is a free and open source platform for gathering and visualizing information and it has been used for everything from disaster response to election monitoring, citizen journalism and community engagement.

There are now over 20,000 deployments of the Ushahidi platform operating in 132 countries. Our goals for Ushahidi are simple; to disrupt the way information flows in the world by providing the best tools for democratizing information with the least barriers to entry.

In the beginning this meant take what took us 3 days to build and make it available to others so they didn’t have to start from scratch. Something that would take them only 3 hours to deploy. Last year we dropped that to 3 minutes with the launch of Crowdmap, our cloud-based version of Ushahidi.

We’ve also created many mobile tools, from an Android-based SMS gateway to customizable iPhone and Android apps.

3 lessons we learned early:

  • We didn’t have the credentials. None of us were humanitarians, we just cared about our home and wanted to do something.
  • We had no funding. It wasn’t until 4 months later that we formed Ushahidi as an organization, and 4 months after that when we received funding. That didn’t stop us from doing something.
  • We had no time. If we had thought long and hard before we built our system, it probably would have been too complicated and wouldn’t have worked. We also might have thought of a more sayable name…

All of the lessons that we’ve learned through our journey are baked into our organizations culture. We question assumptions and we treasure disruption. We’re willing to take risks that leave us open to failure, in our effort to change the way information flows in the world.

There’s a term that I came across last year called “White Space“, and it’s best definition is:

“…where rules are vague, authority is fuzzy, budgets are nonexistent, and strategy is unclear…”

The most innovative ideas come from this white space; internally within organizations, in the startup space and in society in general. At the end of the day, much of the white space definition looks a lot like where I live and work in Africa. And I think it’s why its sometimes easier to come up with innovative solutions there, and why we’re going to see an increasing number of solutions to the problems in the West coming from places that look a lot like Africa.

The best disruptive ideas come from the edge. So, let’s look at the edge, cases from around the globe, for some examples of how technology is being used to make an impact on violence prevention.

  • HarassMap (Ushahidi + FrontlineSMS) – Egypt
  • BullyMapper (FrontlineSMS + Ushahidi) – Australia
  • Human Rights (Ushahidi) – Saudi Arabia by Amnesty Int’l
  • YoungAfrica Live (Internet via mobile) – South Africa
  • YETAM (FrontlineSMS + Ushahidi) – Benin by Plan
  • Apartheid Watch (Ushahidi) – Israel and Palestine
  • Hollaback (Phone cameras and a website) – US, India, Mexico and Argentina
  • PeaceTXT (SMS and trained people) – US
  • Maps4Aid (Ushahidi) – India
  • Take Back the Tech (Ushahidi) – Global

“Across the globe—and without any organizing or mobilization by NGOs or watchdogs—people confronted with threats to their rights are communicating out those experiences, in effect reasserting agency over their own rights protection.” – Amnesty International

Those are all exciting examples, showing what can be done with new technology. Suddenly there are no barriers to entry, anyone can take part, and it doesn’t require that someone have authority to begin. It’s just a matter of figuring out what you want to do and galvanizing a community to take part.

Is technology a panacea? Not at all.

As my friend Clay Shirky says, “The technology only becomes interesting when it is no longer interesting to technologists.”

We use a graphic in Ushahidi to remind users of our tools that the technology is only a small part of any solution. We say that 90% of the work is non-tech related, and can take the form of organizing, outreach, branding, translation, etc.

It’s a reminder to us as well, that we need to focus on creating tools that augment human activity and get out of the way as much as possible. That, in the end, is what makes the earlier examples so interesting; they worked because they used the simple tools available in people’s pockets to interact and bring attention to a much larger population, audience or intermediary.

Just this week a new site was launched, like it’s predecessor in Egypt it’s purpose is to draw attention to the harassment that women get, this time in Ramallah, Palestine. Residents of Ramallah, as well as staff from Palestinian women’s organizations and civil society came together and did something, they built Streetwatch. It was self-organized, it emerged from local needs and tools were found that could suit them.

“They have an opportunity to help themselves and other honest citizens of Ramallah to isolate the problem areas and say no to sexual harassment.”

This is the new story of our time, that:

“Our voices revolutionize the world.” – David Kobia, Ushahidi

Those 5 words. That simple statement.

The revolution is here, you’ve watched it shake industries, rock countries and effect your own community – and what you’re seeing is only the beginning of the massive changes sweeping across the world.

It’s not complicated. It’s the effect of technology democratizing information and changing the way it flows in the world.

It’s simple solutions, by unqualified but driven people, like the communities in Ramallah, Egypt, India and even here in the US, that provide a foundation for the changes that we’re seeing. It’s ordinary people, using simple technology to organize themselves and take care of their own problems.

Your task is to look closely, to understand the basics and then figure out how to use these new tools at your disposal to make a difference. In your case, to specifically prevent violence and help those who have been hurt.

Thoughts on Africa’s Mobile Operators and Disruption

Generally speaking, mobile network operators (MNOs) were highly disruptive in the 90′s, but have continued to decrease in this over the last decade. Operators are no longer the offensive, attacking force of yesteryear, instead they’re putting up barriers and defensive walls trying to protect what they have and hide.

Instead, the disruption comes from the open web. Whenever the operators put up a blocker to what users want, usually in the form of price or access to their infrastructure, the web finds a way of displacing them. Examples abound in location based services, text messaging, video and photos.

There’s a reason operator revenue is shifting away from voice and SMS towards data. The products that got the operators here are receding in relative value. The user wants what’s available in the open web, and that’s just not found, or being provided, by the operators.

So, what is an MNO to do?

Change. Disrupt someone else. Innovate.

One of the biggest disruptors, even in this decade of MNO mediocrity, has been Safaricom – the 800lbs gorilla in my own back yard. They’ve invested in new technology, products and business models like few others, and are reaping the rewards of those strategic moves.

Do I like having a monopoly player in my market? No.
Do I feel bad for the other MNOs (Orange, Airtel and Yu) who are crying now? No, they did this to themselves.

Let’s dig into their golden-child, Mpesa, the mobile peer-to-peer payment system that’s did $3.15 billion in transaction in just the last 6 months(!). How do you know they succeeded in innovating? Well, the easy answer is looking at their profitability and user tie-in that they get from Mpesa. Look more closely and you’ll notice the other signal, all of the bank lobbies in other countries have put up huge walls, blockading an aberration like Mpesa from having sway in their country.

[Sidebar: A warning to everyone who wants to see innovation in their country. Over regulation of telecommunications and banking strangles it. South Africa and Nigeria are cases in point.]

So, Mpesa sounds to everyone like a huge success story. It is, and it’s not. What we think of as an amazing disruptive product is really only halfway up the mountain. There are too many corks being popped while money lies sitting on the table. This stems from 2 main things, which seem to be an issue of Vodafone primarily, since they own the IP for Mpesa and own a 40% stake in Safaricom:

  1. The lack of leadership by Vodafone to NOT open up an API that other businesses could build on and increase usage. They’ve stifled innovation on their own product.
  2. Their lack of vision in the global payments space. Their shortsideness in not spinning out Mpesa as its own company to take on Visa and Mastercard directly. This was one of the few products and business models that could do that.

More MNO Innovation

So, Safaricom might be stifling its own product, but they’re still not short on disruptive features and products. They do fall prey to bureaucracy and political infighting, but they’re also one of the most aggressive MNOs globally, always trying new things. Three more examples:

  • Creativity in 3g data pricing and accessibility down market.
  • First-movers in 3g and exceptional data coverage countrywide.
  • Okoa Jihazi, their product that gives a loan of credit from the operator to users who are tight on cash.

Other examples of MNOs who are innovating in Africa are:

Airtel Madagascar working with Movirtu with their new Cloud Phone, a way for people to share a phone, but keep the SIM card in the cloud.

MTN, testing Mobile Phonebook by FeePerfect out of Cameroon, a product that puts a phone book into everyone’s phone.

Small + Big

Clearly, innovative products can come to market through MNOs. What’s the common denominator on these products though? Most of them came from small companies and were then incorporated into the MNO.

Ideas come from outside, they come from the edge. Scale comes from inside, from the massive infrastructure provided by the MNO. They have to work together to succeed.

I work with, and talk to, hundreds of entrepreneurs. They have ideas, prototypes and products that just might be what the users want. They lack the access to the infrastructure to roll it out.

As an MNO, you boost your chances of success in this increasingly chaotic space by not walling everything off, but by opening it up.