WhiteAfrican

Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Tag: cell phone

New SMS Services in Uganda from Grameen, Google & MTN

Grameen Foundation’s AppLab has released a new suite of mobile phone applications developed in Uganda, using Google SMS Search and in partnership with MTN Uganda as the mobile operator. The services include:

  • Farmer’s Friend: a searchable database with both agricultural advice and targeted weather forecasts
  • Health Tips: provides sexual and reproductive health information
  • Clinic Finder: helps locate nearby health clinics and their services
  • Google Trader: matches buyers and sellers of agricultural produce and commodities as well as other products. Local buyers and sellers, such as small-holder farmers, are able to broaden their trading networks and reduce their transaction costs. (known locally as “Akatale SMS”)

Caterpillar Question - Grameen, MTN and Google team up in UgandaBack in 2004 Grameen started to replicate in Uganda what they had done in Bangladesh with their Village Phone Operators. That is, they would go 20km beyond the best phone signal and provide a loan to a lady in the village that would let her buy a phone and an antenna that would extend the range of the network. The lady would then resell services to local individuals who didn’t have access, or the ability to buy their own phone.

I’m actually quite impressed with this initiative, as it fits in perfectly with Grameen’s mission: providing opportunity through the most basic of mobile phones. All of these services work on SMS-only phones, so anyone with a single bar of coverage and a phone has access to a lot of knowledge in their hands.

Here is a promo video from Uganda, explaining why these services are needed:

High-powered Partnerships

Beyond the applications themselves, what I find most compelling is how the Grameen Foundation collected such a high-powered group of partners. The list reads like a who’s-who of innovative mobile services and development in Africa with Google, MTN Uganda, Technoserve, Kiwanja.net, and BRODSI to name a few. It’s a mixture of for-profit businesses, local NGOs and non-profit tech organizations.

I remember a conversation a couple months back with Sian Townsend (Google) and Ken Banks (FrontlineSMS) about how they did the field studies for this project. Sian shared with us some of her research on mobile user experience while in Uganda – it was extensive. Through a month of rapid prototyping and studying how users were actually using the new services, the team quickly learned what was important and how to better serve information up to the end-user.

Though I haven’t been able to personally test the services yet, with this group, I would expect the results to be better than average. For instance, Google doesn’t tend to get involved with ideas that don’t scale. I imagine that they see replicability with both SMS Search and Google Trader in many other countries as well. Rachel Payne, the country manager for Google in Uganda, has a blog post here, but not much more information on the long-term plans for Google Trader. I’d be interested in seeing how this compares to Esoko out of Ghana.

google-trader-picture

iYam.mobi – the Mobile Mobile Phone Directory

Fritz Ekwoge is the kind of African developer and entrepreneur who keeps me optimistic about Africa’s future. A couple years ago he built Kerawa, a classifieds service that is doing quite well in some West African countries. Last week he got in touch with me about a new service he created called iYam.mobi, which is in alpha. (Bill Zimmerman is also covering this, as he was part of the testing for the service)

A uniquely African solution to an African problem

iYam - mobile mobile phone directory from CamerooniYam is a simple mobile phone-based mobile phone directory (Fritz calls it a “mobile mobile phone directory”). It is a way to lookup businesses, service providers and contacts from your mobile phone.

That doesn’t sound very exciting, and it shouldn’t if you live anywhere outside of Africa. However, those of you in Africa will recognize immediately why this is such a valuable service. You see, most countries in Africa don’t have a mobile phone directory for finding goods, services or individuals. There is no easy way to contact most businesses in Africa. It provides a simple, accessible solution to the problem using the ubiquitous SMS protocol.

Example uses:

  • Looking for computer dealers to buy your next laptop? iYam will give you their contact numbers.
  • Looking for software developers to help you work on your project? iYam will give you some contact numbers.
  • Has your phone just been stolen and you want to get back some of your old contacts ? Find their numbers using iYam.
  • Someone just called you but you seem to not remember who has that phone number ? iYam can tell you a lot more about the owner of that number.

iYam is ground breaking because it is a new form of search. Instead of searching for web pages, you search for people. You are only allowed to use 155 characters to describe yourself as you add yourself to the direcgtory, forcing a certain amount of constraint.

“The way we develop here in Africa will be different from the way the big nations developed. They grew up with computers. We are growing up with mobile phones.
– Fritz Ekwoge”

Business cases and investment opportunities

Most of the discussion between Fritz and I revolved around the business case for his product, and the investment money needed to make it a real business. As always, the Achilles heel for any smart, entrepreneurial programmer in Africa is how to get enough money to work on something beyond the idea and prototype phase.

    Business Models
    Plan A: Strike deals with local Telecom operators to charge a small extra fee for each SMS passing through our service.
    Plan B: iYam only displays the first five results per SMS request. As the service gets more popular, many businesses will be eyeing for the top position. They will have to pay for that.

    Advantages
    Hardware requirements are modest. Currently, in it’s alpha stage, iYam is powered by a laptop plus two mobile phones. These will be replaced with a bigger server and some GSM modems as traffic increases. To reduce international communication costs, the iYam setup can easily be replicated in other target countries.

    Disadvantages
    SMS will definitely cost a lot as the service becomes more popular. But revenue should cover those costs, or deals could be made with telecommunication companies to reduce our SMS costs.

    Growth
    The market in Cameroon alone is sizable, but there is no reason that once this moves from prototype to service, that it can’t be replicated in other African markets.

    Technical Details
    Currently, it does not work with the local CDMA provider CAMTEL, because they don’t exchange SMS with the GSM providers. However, it does work with other countries, as Ghana and Gabon have already been tested.

Final thoughts

As I mentioned in the beginning, I’m enthused by both Fritz and by iYam. Of the two, I’m more excited by Fritz, because it’s easy to come up with ideas, and hard to execute on them. This is his second time to have done just that. This is the perfect opportunity for an early-stage investor to get involved and help scale an idea and prototype to a real product making real money.

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