Category Archives: Mobile

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.

Infographic: Mobile Phones in Uganda 2011

The iHub Research team has been at work pulling together the mobile phone stats for Uganda and putting it into an infographic. It’s good to see the 41% density of mobile phones and impressive numbers starting to show up from the 1 million users of Uganda’s MTN (60% market share) Mobile Money solution.

So far they’ve done Kenya and Uganda, next up is Tanzania (I believe), so keep an eye on the iHub blog for more.

Africa: Turning the World Upside Down

Whitespace in business is defined as a place, “…where rules are vague, authority is fuzzy, budgets are nonexistent, and strategy is unclear…” It’s the space between the organizational chart, where the real innovation happens. It’s also a great definition for what we see in Africa, and it’s the reason why it’s one of the most exciting places to be a technology entrepreneur today.

I just finished with a talk at PopTech on Saturday where I talked about “The Idea of Africa” and how Western abstractions of the continent are often mired in the past. It’s not just safaris and athletes, poverty and corruption – it’s more nuanced than that.

Today I’m in London for Nokia World 2011 and am speaking on a panel about “The next billion” and how it might/might not turn the world upside down. In my comments tomorrow, I’ll probably be echoing many of the same thoughts that came out over the weekend at PopTech.

Here are a few of the points that we might get into tomorrow:

Horizontal vs Vertical scaling

I talk a lot about this with my friend Ken Banks, where we look to scale our own products (Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS) in a less traditional format. As entrepreneurs you’re driven to scale, but our definition of scale in the West tends to be monolithic. Creating verticals that are incredibly efficient, but which decreases resilience.

In places like Africa, we have this idea of horizontal scaling, where the product or service is grown in smaller units, but spread over multiple populations and communities. Where a smaller size has its own benefits.

In this time of corporate and government cuts, where seemingly oversized companies are propped up in order to not fail, there are some lessons here for the West. We shouldn’t be surprised that the solutions to the West’s problems will increasingly come from places like Africa.

Instead of thinking of Africa as a place that needs to be more like the West, we’re now looking at Africa and realizing the West need to be more like Africa.

Reverse distribution

Will we increasingly see a new set of innovative ideas, products and services coming from places like Africa and spreading to the rest of the world? Why is Africa such a fertile ground for a different type of innovation, a more practical one – or is it?

Disruptive ideas happen at the edge.

Africa is on the edge. While the world talks at great length about the shifting of power from the West (US/Europe) to the East (India/China), Africa is overlooked. That works in our favor (sometimes).

A couple of the ideas and products that have started in Africa and been exported beyond the continent include; Mpesa, Ushahidi and Mxit.


Mpesa – the idea came from Vodafone, but product met it’s success in Kenya. Over $8 billion has been transferred through it’s peer-to-peer payment system. Vodafone has failed to make the brand go global, but the model itself is being dissected and mimicked the world over.


Ushahidi – we started small, from Kenya again, and driven by our Crowdmap platform now have over 20,000 deployments of our software around the world. It’s in 132 countries, and the biggest uses of it are in places like Japan, Russia, Mexico and the US.


Mxit – the famous mobile chat software from South Africa has 3x the number of Facebook users in that country, and has over 25 million users globally.

Like we see at Maker Faire Africa, these innovative solutions are based on needs locally, many of them due to budgetary constraints. Some of them due to cultural idiosyncrasies. Often times, people from the West can’t imagine, nor create, the solutions needed in emerging markets, they don’t have the context and the “mobile first” paradigm isn’t understood.

A good example of this is Okoa Jihazi, a way to get a small loan of credit for your mobile phone minutes when you’re out of cash to buy them, from the operator. They’ve built some safeguards in to protect against abuse, such as you have to have had the SIM for 6 months in order to get the service. It works though, because the company selling it (and many of the mobile operators do across Africa) understands the nuanced life of Africa.

We hold on to technology longer, experiment on it, abuse it even. SMS and USSD are great examples of this, while much of the Western world is jumping on the next big technology bandwagon, there are really crazy things coming out in emerging markets, like USSD internet, payment systems, ticketing and more.

Throughout the world, the basic foundation of any technology success is based on finding a problem, a need, and solving it. This is what we’re doing in Africa. We have different use cases and cultures, which means that there will be many solutions. Some will only be valuable for local needs and won’t scale beyond the country or region. Others will go global. Both solutions are “right”, it’s not a failure to have a product that profitably serves 100,000 people instead of 100 million.

Turning the world upside down has as much to do with accepting this idea of localized success as an acceptable answer as it does with explosive global growth and massive vertical scale.

The Two Big Trends

Trend #1: Adoption by Africans as consumers is increasing.
Trend #2: Technology costs are decreasing

Let’s get back to my talk for tomorrow at Nokia… 87% of sub-$100 phones sold by Nokia are sold in emerging markets. 34% of Africa’s population (313 million) are now considered middle class. The fastest growing economy in the world is Ghana, 5 of the top 10 are African countries (including Liberia, Ethiopia, Angola and Mozambique). Across the continent, the average GDP growth is expected to be at 5+% going forward.

At the same time, we’re seeing bandwidth increase, and bandwidth costs decrease. Mobile operators are the continents major ISPs, and they’re getting creative on their data plans. Handset costs are going down. Smart(er) phones are available for less than ever before. We even have one of the lease expensive Android phones in the world at $80 in Kenya, the IDEOS by Huawei.

Is it all bright and rosy? Not at all. You’re on the edge, you have to create new markets, not just new businesses. But in that challenge lies opportunity, for it’s from these hard, rough and disruptive spaces that great wealth is grown. If you’re an African entrepreneur, why would you want to be anywhere else?

Infographic: Kenya Mobile Subscribers, Penetration & Internet

The research team at the iHub put together some stats on mobile numbers in Kenya. A special nod to Leo Mutuku for gathering it all from so many sources, and to Patrick Munyi for creating this cool visualization of it. Check out the iHub blog post to read the rest.

an infographic on mobile subscribers, penetration and internet in Kenya

Look for more infographics on the other East African countries soon.

Mobile Apps in Africa (2011 Report)

I maintain that Russell Southwood and his Balancing Act newsletter and reports are some of the best material on pan-African technology and broadcast information that you can find anywhere. Their recent “Mobile apps for Africa: Strategies to make sense of free and paid apps” report is one of them, and here are some interesting tidbits from it.

The report is broken into three parts: device, developers and distribution.

Device

South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Morocco, Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania all are good markets for apps, due to their population, 3g pickup and smartphone penetration. It should be noted that the highest smartphone penetration is in South Africa at 10%, though the high-potential countries are expected to grow by 8-10% per year over the next 3-5 years.

“Interestingly, infotainment activities score high off-line (using the phone’s features) and online (mobile Internet).”

Balancing Act provides a very interesting visual of what the “Handset pyramid shift” looks like in Africa.

Africa's handset pyramid, and its shift

Developers

The development of smartphone applications in particular commercial apps will depend on the rate and level of smartphone adoption. Developers in countries like South Africa, Kenya or Egypt with encouraging smartphone penetration rates have more opportunities in terms of apps development and uptake by potential users.

The major international apps stores (Apple, Android, etc) have set a figure of 70% of the revenue generated by apps will be going to the developer. This is very good news for African developers because so far with SMS based content, the revenue sharing model is not in favour of developers since less than 30% of the revenue generated by the content is going to the author. It is African mobile operators that make the most out of them as they take a minimum of 50% of the revenue generated by SMS services. The major international apps stores also offer additional revenue to developers via advertising and in-apps purchases. These revenue streams are becoming more and more significant for developers.

Building into the next section on distribution is the issue that developers have with creating apps for the international app stores. It’s very difficult, and often impossible, to sell apps on them and for African customers to buy them.

Distribution

The major consequence of the “success story” of the apps store is that it
establishes a distribution model for mobile content that breaks away from the monopoly and exclusivity that mobile operators have enjoyed so far on the delivery of services to their mobile subscribers. Today the mobile apps distribution ecosystem can roughly be divided in 4 main groups:

  1. Operating system app stores
  2. Handset manufacturer’s app stores
  3. Mobile operators’ app stores
  4. Independent app stores

So far, most African mobile operators have been little affected because smartphone penetration rates are very low in most African countries and also because African smartphone users still have access issues to the full portfolio of international apps stores.

The report goes on to express Balancing Act’s thoughts on how mobile operators can get into and take advantage of mobile app stores, “While revenue potentials are promising what else do mobile operators have to consider if they want to roll out their own apps store?” The report establishes the following 8 recommendations:

  1. Be OS agnostic
  2. Know the devices on your network
  3. Use “white label” apps store
  4. Source international content from third party content providers
  5. Don’t forget about additional revenue streams
  6. Build a strong local flavour to your apps store
  7. Make apps affordable to your subscribers
  8. Use carrier billing

And there’s More

Unfortunately, I can’t put all of the good stuff in this blog post. There are a lot more interesting points in the report, and you can buy it here. Amongst some of the best are:

  • What smartphones do South Africans want?
  • Nigerians love their BlackBerry
  • Examples of mobile apps start-ups companies in Africa
  • Morocco: Mobile internet users and penetration rate
  • Mobile Internet subscribers and market share per operator
  • Advertising and in-apps purchases potential income for developers

MedAfrica Pitches at DEMO

Mbugua Njihia and Steve Mutinda were the overall winners at the Pivot 25 event earlier this year with their MedKenya app, which has since turned into MedAfrica. Their prize was a chance to pitch at DEMO, the big startup pitching event in Silicon Valley. Here’s their team last week giving the pitch.

MedAfrica is just the tip of the iceberg, as we see more startup spaces, pitching events and seed capital entering the continent.

Praekelt: SMS at Scale

Here’s a great video put together by the Praekelt Foundation on the state of mobiles in Africa in 2011.

I’ve gotten to know Gustav Praekelt over the last few years after we first met up at PopTech in 2008. He’s one of the most astute businessmen I know on the continent, and his ability to grow out his business into the giant it is in the messaging and communication space is proof of that. The Praekelt Foundation leverages the same infrastructure that he’s built out on the for-profit side of what he’s done, and is making a big impact, at scale. You can watch a video of him talking about his projects here.

Africa’s Android Invasion

Mobile phone manufacturers, operators and of course Google started a big push on Android into Africa this year. Samsung, HTC and Huawei are moving Android phones into the market. Some operators are seeing the signals and starting to subsidize Android handsets to get them to a price point that is palatable by a larger number of buyers. Google continues to push for local content, works with developers, does g-[country] events and puts on contests.

While the primary phones in Africa are still feature phones, Android has made a beachhead on the continent and will continue to roll forward. I believe we’ll look back at the landing of the IDEOS phone earlier this year in Kenya as an inflection point, where in 2 years we’ll define the times up until then as, “before Android”.

Developers as Leading Indicators

I see what the local programmers working on as a leading indicator of what everyone else will be using in the next 2-3 years. In the iHub, on the mobile side, we see a lot of programmers excited about, and working on, Android apps. It’s a balance between that and the SMS/USSD core infrastructure apps that Kenya is well known for.

Today, at the g-Kenya event, Google announced the three winners of their Android Developer Challenge for Sub-Saharan Africa. Each of the winners will receive $25,000.

There were 29 finalists came from the following 10 countries, which is a pretty decent spread. However, you can tell from the number of apps in each country where the real powerhouses are.

7 South Africa
6 Kenya
5 Nigeria
3 Ghana
2 Uganda
2 Malawi
1 Senegal
1 Togo
1 Tanzania
1 Republic of Guinea

The one pain point that developers have right now is that they feel pressure to support multiple operating systems. This is Primarily between Android and Symbian if the app is focused on Africa, if the app is global, then add in iOS and possibly Windows and Blackberry.

It will be interesting to see what happens with feature rich HTML5 and how it plays out into the mobile space. At this point, either we’ll see a lot of mobile web apps (working across PCs and all phones with real browsers) or we’ll see a lot of apps. Even if we do see the client-side Android apps, I’m guessing they’ll be more thin-clients than anything else. Only time will tell though.

The Future of Consumer Mobiles in Africa

The years ahead are hard to predict. However, in Africa I think we’ll see an increase in Android handsets and mobile web usage, and a continued decrease in the cost of low-end smartphones and data connectivity.

If I’m an operator, I see the writing on the wall in regards to SMS and USSD apps, and I’m trying to move my user base to data. This means more subsidized phones, and attractive data packages that are wide-spread across my region. I’m making deals with content providers and offering zero-rated (or reverse-billing) packages on data to large content houses in order to increase usage.

If I’m a manufacturer, I’m providing an array of Android handsets that allow my aspirational users to move up from a feature phone to a (we hope soon) $50 Android, then up to a tablet eventually. I’m doing whatever it takes to decrease costs on the low-end to get mindshare. If I don’t do Android (Nokia, RIM) then I’m doubling down on the mobile web and pushing for better browsers on my phones.

If I’m Google, I keep having dev events and competitions, but I also push for better localized payment options for developers in Africa. On top of that, I’m looking for an operator billing link for consumers with attractive percentages for app publishers, that way I attract them and everyone makes more money.

Of course, there’s more, but that’s where I’d start.

Africa’s small merchants and payments

I’ve been pondering small business, payments and incentives quite a bit recently. Partly because of the web startups I’ve been seeing crop up locally, partly due to the inefficiencies in the system, and also because I’m a bit of a merchant at heart.

Specifically, I think that small business in Africa will bring a major wave of activity in the online space. That some smart startups will take advantage of mobiles and the internet, and will be beneficiaries of this growth. We’re all quite impressed with the peer-to-peer mobile money growth on the continent, but those numbers pales in comparison to what can be done with high penetration of active merchant payment options.

The African Payments Picture

A recent post about Square (the merchant payment system for iOS devices) and their use by small businesses started me thinking beyond the mobile peer-to-peer payments we’re so focused on here in Kenya and more in the direction of the merchant side. Right now Square moves $4 million per day, a healthy business, but not a massive amount compared to the big guys in the field. Most merchants in the US and Europe default to having some type of credit card or bank card payment setup for customers, it’s almost a given.

Meanwhile, in Africa it’s a different story. Mobile payments have taken the stage due to the lack of credit/debit card penetration. In short, African’s lack payment options, so innovative ways to use what they do have (phones) has pushed payment innovation forward.

While the mobile operators have been busy diversifying their revenue streams and figuring out new ways to hook in their subscribers with mobile money, the banks haven’t been nearly as active. Many of them would rather just create a mobile way to check your balance, rather than provide a tool with truly meaningful interaction, something you could pass money through to merchants or your contacts. Instead of offering something of equal, or better, value they’ve instead chosen to try and block the operators movements.

As I’ve suggested many times, we need an agnostic system, where the user isn’t penalized for their choice of mobile operator or bank.

New Ideas

While the big players continue to fight it out, the small players are innovating where they can. We’re seeing mobile payment aggregators, such as PesaPal, begin to see success as their web options catch on with merchants, schools and events. Meanwhile, groups like KopoKopo are going further down the stack, providing a subscription-based mobile payments processing package for SMEs.

New startups like Niko Hapa are creating locally-relevant incentive systems for merchants that works with everyday customers. Others, like M-Order, are creating simplified mobile and web-based ordering systems for customers to order services and products. MIH-backed Dealfish and Ringier-backed Rupu/Pigia continue to duke it out against each other across sub-saharan Africa, getting small merchants to list their goods on their marketplaces.

What I’m pointing out is that we have a wave of new products and services specifically aimed at merchants. Most of them are small and don’t have critical mass, but that is changing rapidly. These are just the first movers.

Shifting Sands

Bonk is a t-shirt company in Nairobi that offers the coolest designs around for their target market of urban Nairobians, and they have a shop set up in a nice shopping center in town (Junction). Let’s call them the high-end of the small merchants who need a good way to get payments. Their current setup allowing Visa transactions account for around half of their customers, and they have to pay a rather large 5% transaction fee. They don’t have an online store (yet… Shame on them.), so walk-ins are their only sales channel and they do very well with them.

Other examples of small businesses that run the range of medium- to lower-level transactions would be auto parts stores, retail clothes shops and restaurants. They all have a need to attract customers and they are all served better by having an easier way to setup a merchant account and have easier ways for their clientele to pay.

There are hundreds of thousands of these small businesses across Africa. Few of them have any solution other than cash. Companies that accept credit cards, like Bonk, are the anomaly.

A Hybrid Solution

What would a Square-type solution look like for them? What if a company were to create a simple (for customers) payment system that solved the problem that Square is solving? That is, a way to get your hands on a solution easily, without oversized transaction fees, and which also worked within the local context of mobile payments plus credit cards.

I can imagine someone coming up with an device that works on most phones. Probably Android phones here instead of iOS devices. That way, as a merchant I can buy an $80 IDEOS Android phone, get one of these swiping devices, that also has a chip in it for near-field communication payments and which seamlessly works with Mpesa and other mobile payment options. It’s simplified, and it works across not just a country, but across the continent.

What would this device look like? How could it connect to the phone? What type of technology would be embedded in it to make it work right? Which merchant systems could be signed on in order to allow people to signup and get started?

IPO48 Nairobi Startup Finalists 2011

I’m at the final pitches for the 2011 Nairobi IPO48 event that’s been happening non-stop over the last 2 days. This year it’s being held at the iHub, with 12 companies working through ideas, prototypes, business plans and finally an investment for the winner. In total, they’re offering:

  • 25.000€ (3.3m Ksh) in funding after 48 hours
  • Mentorship from serial entrepreneurs and professionals
  • Great media exposure for your startup
  • Find talented people that want to join your startup

If you want a quick rundown of who the 12 finalists are, and what their apps do, check out Afrinnovator’s writeup. You can also watch quick 1-minute videos on each of them on YouTube.

The 2011 Winner: Tusquee Systems with their SchoolSMS app (which also won their category at Pivot25)!

Runners Up Ghafla! and 6ix Degrees will win an additional 15k Euro investment (more on Afrinnovator).

Kenya Startup Events


It’s only 2 months since Pivot25 and now we’re on another startup event with Human IPO back in Nairobi for the second year. The Tandaa $690k startup grants for techies have gone out to 15 companies. We didn’t have any of these events going on. None.

This is important for a number of reasons:

  • Kenyan entrepreneurs are getting experience in pitching their ideas.
  • Techies are finding out the hard truths about themselves as business people, and that technology alone doesn’t make a business.
  • Local and international mentors are giving the entrepreneurs much needed insights and wisdom.
  • Investors and international media are being catered to, they’re getting a chance to see the Nairobi startup scene up close and personal.
  • Design is being taken a little more seriously (though a lot more needs to be done).
  • It brings an angel and early-stage investment mentality to Nairobi that hasn’t really existed before.

In short, we need to continue with local startup competitions. The more people who learn how to think through, build and pitch their ideas, the more likely we are to continue our upward growth in mobile and web innovation. It’s only by a lot of practice, lessons learned and hard knocks that we’ll see more success stories.

The finalists in these competitions represent a small percentage of the people who apply, but don’t make it. It’s a pure numbers game, where we’ll see the 10-15% succeed and most fail. Again, that’s okay, it’s how the startup game works.

We’re only half way up the mountain, and startup competitions are only part of the equation. There’s a lot more work to do if we want to see more success stories. Thus we need the whole technology community in East Africa to continue supporting the events and the people behind them, but also get involved in the startups themselves, whether for mentoring, business or investment.

A West African Mobile Hacking Event

There’s generally a communications wall between francophone and anglophone Africa. Both sides could use greater exposure to the other.

It’s no surprise to see a bunch of tech companies and community members coming together for a 24 hour hackathon on September 24th in four French speaking countries: Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Senegal and Cameroon.

What’s great to see, is that there are 6 tech labs/hubs that are supporting it in these countries:

Côte d’Ivoire : AKENDEWA
S̩n̩gal : JOKKOLABSACT DAKAR РiHUBSENEGAL
Cameroun : APPSTECH
Bénin : ETRI LABS

What Should Google Do in Africa?

This week I’ll be speaking to a delegation of around 30 Associate Product Managers (APMs) who are exploring leadership positions within Google. Along with them is Marissa Mayer, VP of Location and Local Services. Like I did when I addressed Nokia’s Africa leadership last year, this is a chance for them to hear from more than just one person with one opinion.

I will bring them your answers to the questions below:

  • What is Google doing well in Africa that they should continue?
  • What should Google be doing better, differently or new in Africa?

A Few of My Thoughts

Google has done what few other tech companies have done on this continent. Having 54 countries to scale across isn’t easy, so anyone trying it gets a lot of credit.

  • They’ve invested in people; both their own and the community in general.
  • They realized early that there was a need for tech policy change, and put time, resources and energy into that.
  • They have surfaced content, from maps to books to government data that wasn’t available before.
  • They have localized search into multiple local languages, made their services more mobile phone friendly and experimented with services for farmers, health workers and traders.
  • Their Google Global Cache has sped up the internet by upwards of 300% for some countries.

Here’s are my suggestions:

Double down on Android. Do this in two ways; first, keep driving the costs down, like what was done with the IDEOS handset. Second, help your partners (Huawei and the operators) push the spread of these beyond the few countries they’re in now (and at the same price as in Kenya).

Gmail ties everything together. Google has been the beneficiary of most other companies ignoring Africa. Facebook is the only challenger in the chat, mail and social spaces. Get started on zero-rating Gmail with the mobile operators, figure out how to make Google Voice work here, and extend Gmail SMS Chat beyond the 8 countries that it currently works in.

Figure out payments. It’s still difficult to get paid if you’re running ads or making Android apps, you’re not on an even playing field with your counterparts in other areas of the world. It is clear that Google Wallet is a strong personalized LBS play on consumers in the US. Take that same energy and figure out how to crack Africa, realize just how much money there is in a payment system that spans the continent.

Keep experimenting. Many don’t know of the apps and services you build and test out in various hyper-local areas. Some work, some fail. This curiosity and willingness to try something innovative and new is what makes the open web such a great space, and it is what helps us all overcome the walled gardens of the operators. Don’t stop.

Finally, though you have all the power and brand name needed to make things happen, remember that it’s the local devs and companies who need to own their space and especially their data. While flexing your muscle, especially with government types who own vasts amounts of data, do push for local ownership over taking it for yourself.

[Notes: hat tip on this post goes to Steve Song who started thinking through this years ago. Image credits from Memeburn.]