Mxit is Imported into Kenya

Mxit is a massive mobile social network that was started in South Africa a couple years ago. Today, Safaricom announced a partnership with them, using their marketing muscle (7 pages of ads in today’s newspaper) to import Mxit into Kenya.

Mxit launches in Kenya

[For the time being, we’ll ignore the complete ripoff of Twitter in their marketing...]

Mxit is a free instant messaging platform that uses the data network, thereby making it cheaper per message than sending an SMS. They claim 19 million users, most a younger demographic, who spend time chatting with friends or in chat rooms. MXit also supports gateways to other instant messaging platforms such as MSN Messenger, ICQ and Google Talk.

Mxit user growth

Local apps and entrepreneurs react

This should be a slap in the face to Kenyan programmers and tech business entrepreneurs. The model to build the same type of mobile social network has been openly working and available to do for at least three years.

To be fair, Mbugua and the Symbiotic team tried to create something like this a year ago, called Sembuse. Both he and Idd Salim aren’t very happy about this latest move, claiming that Kenyan entrepreneurs can’t get the same access or opportunities as their South African counterparts.

From Mbugua:

“The issue is not that they have a partnership with Mxit but that from personal experience, local developers and companies suffer greatly in their quest to have such partnerships.”

From Idd:

“Most likely, the marketing retards at Safcom were convinced to believe that Mxit will increase data ARPU for Safcom. Mxit is meant to be a replacement to SMS. … So Instead of sending an SMS, you will use Mxit. Safaricom will lose KSHS 3.5 per SMS, but gain KSHS 0.003 per data exchange over Mxit. Talk of Safaricon Conned! Pwagu amepata pwaguzi.”

The issue with Safaricom

On one side, the Sembuse team have a point. Safaricom has been promising to open up their API and platform for real extension. This has never been fulfilled. They have promised to (honestly) engage with the local programming community, and this hasn’t happened either. They were publicly called out on all of these facts and more at the Mobile Web East Africa conference this year.

In many ways Safaricom walks arrogantly through the Kenyan market, lying, stealing and cheating their way to even larger profits. However, they also push the edges. While others are happy to sit back and make their current margins, Safaricom takes risks and eats their lunch. Innovation, whether it’s home built, bought or stolen still has the same effect.

Business reality

For whatever reason (marketing, value add, etc), Sembuse didn’t catch on – it hasn’t reached critical mass. Numbers of users, rather than technology ability even when it’s better, are the things that larger companies are looking for in this type of play. If you don’t have half a million users, you aren’t even in the game.

Though I’m no Safaricom apologist, I can’t fault them for making a decision to go with a tested product from an established business. Yes, SMS is currently a cash cow, especially here in Kenya. However, everyone can see the writing on the wall: data is the future, and controlling the channel is more important than anything else.

As David Kiania from the Skunkworks list noted, “Rule No. 4 in business: Cannibalize your revenue and business model before your competition does it for you.

I’m more disappointed that no Kenyan company has been able to make a go at this by themselves, just like Mxit did years ago. You don’t need Safaricom or any other mobile app provider to be successful in this space, Mxit if anything, has proven that.

Like I said 2 years ago, this is a sure win if you can pull it off correctly. The technology to do this is not new, as Idd Salim points out as well, neither is the model – so you know that the strategy here is on marketing and communications to show the value add to potential customers.

More than anything else, Kenyan entrepreneurs should be upset with themselves for missing a sure opportunity, not upset with Safaricom for making a good business decision.

Testing iScribe: African Pixel’s first iPhone app

african-pixel-logoIn the Summer of 2009 I was approached by Wilfred Mworia, a talented programmer in Nairobi. Wilfred’s big idea was to open up a small company where his main goal was to create mobile phone applications for platforms like the iPhone and Android operating systems. This company is called African Pixel, and Wilfred is well on his way to becoming a mobile app developer of some note, regardless of the fact that he lives in Kenya.

His first application is iScribe (iTunes link), a simple tool for writing a journal on your phone. It’s the tool I’m using to write this post as it pushes to WordPress.

Scribe

iScribe was built to be simple. A way for you to write a journal entry quickly, and then add images, video or audio if you so choose. While I’ve been actively involved providing feedback to Wilfred on the app, I’ve had to constantly remind myself not to ask for more features.

iscribe-writing

“How does it work? Simply, type text, take photos or videos, press a button to record and play back audio recordings, save your stuff, press another button to share online or by email and voila!”

Besides the simple journaling and multimedia capabilities iScribe entries can be emailed or pushed to a blog. This is especially useful as few people write solely for themselves.

Here’s Wilfred giving a walk through of the application:

Go ahead and give this first iteration of iScribe a try. Send Wilfred your feedback on how it can be made better or if you find a bug.

My feedback
The pushing to a WordPress blog is where there are a few shortcomings. I did push most of this post from there, but the images didn’t work right, nor was I able to add links. There are some user experience items where the user needs feedback on when they pushed a button and if something is happening. These are mostly minor issues though, nothing which makes iScribe unusable.

African Pixel

This is one application, something that should make some residual income for Wilfred. I know he’s interested in building more applications that he can sell on the iPhone app store and the Android marketplace. That’s the idea anyway, and it’s encouraging to see that he’s doing it from here, realizing that the web/mobile world means that you can do this anywhere.

Wilfred is currently working on a second application, one that he started in August which has even more potential than iScribe. To keep up to date with Wilfred and African Pixels, follow him on Twitter, African Pixel on Facebook and the blog. Guys like Wilfred need seed capital to get going, to buy the time to create those first apps where they can begin seeing cash flow. If you’re interested in that, I know he’d like to talk to you.

iWarrior: an African iPhone Game

There aren’t a lot of African gamers, as would be expected due to the general lack of access to gaming technology and platforms in Africa, relative to other parts of the world. There are even fewer game developers on the continent. Due to being a gamer myself, I like to keep track of this as much as possible, and it’s always fun to announce a new one.

iWarrior - an African iPhone gameiWarrior is an iPhone game (iTunes link), created by the cross-Afrian team of Kenyan Wesley Kirinya and Ghanaian Eyram Tawia of Leti Games. It’s a unique top-down shooter game that utilizes the iPhone’s inbuilt accelerometer to both move and shoot. Your goal: protect your village, livestock and garden from the incoming marauding animals.

It’s a great first-effort from the team, and I believe it’s the first game created by a team in Africa. This itself is a much more difficult task than what many might expect. Just to get an iTunes account and a way to be be paid for your application is a challenge due to Apple’s inbuilt prejudice against Africa (they’re not alone in this, as many other platforms, like PayPal’s or Google Checkout’s are the same). That seems like a dramatic statement to make, but I ask you to stay your judgment until you’ve walked in the shoes of an African programmer.

Gameplay
I’m not an exceptionally talented twitch gamer, so I found the unique movement plus shooting actions hard to come to terms with. However, as I played it longer, I found myself slowly figuring it out and getting better at it. Thankfully, the team has built in a completely different way to play using your finger to slide and tap, you can move and shoot. So, for the accelerometer-challenged (like me) there’s another option. :)

iWarrior also allows you to play your own music while playing the game. This might seem small, but it’s something a lot of game maker’s overlook, and it’s a lot more fun than listening to the same repetitious in-game music.

The game costs $2.99, which is a little steep for new games on the iPhone. For many reasons the costs of most applications (games or otherwise) on the App Store have been driven to about 99cents. So, it takes either a really big name or an app that has hard to replicate features in order to break past $1.99 and sell a lot. In the team’s defense, it’s difficult for them to download paid games to test and see if they compare to their own prior to putting it on the market (again, due to them being in Africa).

Graphics
The graphics are okay. I’m a stickler on this type of thing though, and I go for either over-the-top quality or simplicity. Examples of this is comparing Fieldrunners to Doodle Jump, both excellent graphically, yet with completely different aesthetics.

iPhone game design - fieldrunners vs doodle jump

So, I’m going to ding the team on this part of the game. This, after a lengthy discussion in Ghana with Eyram over the difficulties of finding quality digital artists. It’s not an easy thing to do, the best designers aren’t digitally literate, with a few exceptions. So, you get great sketching and painting, but few can put that into vector graphics, 3d or even Photoshop.

Though the challenge is high, we live in a digitally connected world where top quality digital artists from Asia and Eastern Europe can be found to do the work at acceptable rates. There are other options, and a game can be made or broken on looks alone.

Summary

iWarrior is an excellent first game on the iPhone platform from two highly talented and creative African game developers. I expect that there will be a lot of good games, and other applications, coming from this team over time – both on the iPhone and other platforms. It’s a game to be proud of and one that I hope a lot of others will buy.

Uganda’s Appfrica Labs

Jon Gosier runs Appfrica Labs. He’s been hard at work over the last year promoting technology all over Africa on his blog, and at the same time building a base for the technology incubator Appfrica Labs that he launched late last year with some external funding from European VC firm Kuv Capital. Jon is one of the most capable, energetic and social programmers that I know. He is entrepreneurial, understands the business side of things as well as the nuts and bolts of developing. In short, he’s about the perfect person to put your money behind if you’re going to invest in the African startup tech space.

Appfrica Labs Staff

Innovation in Uganda, by Ugandans, for Uganda

There’s something very powerful about the focus that Jon is applying to Appfrica Labs. I’m sure that there are opportunities and applications that he will incubate that stretch beyond Uganda, but he’s taking a measured approach. There’s enough low-hanging fruit in Uganda for him work on, so he’s starting there.

“The mission is to offer opportunities and work experience for East African software entrepreneurs so that they can then use their talents to bolster the growing local markets by creating their own products and companies. We pick up where local colleges like Makerere University leave off by offering hand-on experience in Java, C++, C#, Ruby on Rails, Django and Python, PHP, Perl, Kannel and various other programming languages that often can’t be taught in-depth in classes due to budget restraints.”

Jon notes that there are over 60,000 Facebook users in Kampala, and instead of creating yet another social network, he has decided to focus a fair bit of early development into this platform. He doesn’t focus on Twitter or other “hot Web 2.0 apps” which aren’t being used there by enough people yet.

Proof is in the development

A good example of this local Uganda focus is the apps and tools that are being developed right now. Here are just a couple examples, and I know first-hand that there are more on the way shortly:

Status.ug – an inexpensive, and efficient, mobile gateway for Ugandans to update Facebook via their mobile phone.

Answer Bird - UgandaAnswer Bird – Uses Facebook Connect to allow questions to be asked and answered in a Twitter-like interface more here).

OhmSMS – Get an SMS when your power is off at home or at the office, simply by keeping a cheap mobile phone plugged into an outlet.

Why this works

Appfrica Labs is not only a great idea, but it’s a blueprint for a new way for technologists to band together and create something in the face of a lot of difficulties in Africa. We all know of the problems faced when trying to get seed capital, or of the lack of traction when trying to sell ideas to the government or big businesses within a country.

What Jon has been able to do is create a brand which others can rally around and push their efforts forward as a collective. It’s about marketing, messaging and communication. He’s made a lot of headway for not just himself, but the other entrepreneurs in Uganda due in no small part to the hard work and late nights put into his blog, creating his own code, and promoting his message at conferences.

We have yet to see the final outcome of all this labor, but it’s an extremely strong start that leaves me optimistic about the future of Appfrica Labs and any other innovation hubs that pop up around Africa. Rebecca Wanjiku is right, Africans should stop whining and work smart, collectively to get new technology built, released and adopted throughout the continent.

An Interview with Appfrica Founder Jon Gosier

Earlier this year a new blog burst onto the African tech scene, and it hasn’t let up. In fact, it’s growing from a blog into a place for open source developers to work together. The man behind Appfrica is Jon Gosier, an energetic and proactive developer now living in Kampala, Uganda. Below is a short email interview that I did with him last week.

Q: What do you do?

Jon: I’m a glorified computer geek who works as a self-employed web developer and social media consultant in East Africa.

Q: What inspires you?

Jon: I’m a big fan of what’s going with the internet right now, specifically all the theory and development related to the semantic web (microformats, artificial intelligence, computational linguistics and dataparsing) where all that is heading. Simply put, technology inspires me.

Q: How did you get interested in Africa? Why Uganda?

Jon: I’m in Africa because of my girlfriend. She (also from the United States) works for an NGO called Water For People and they hired her as the African Regional Manager to supervise the launch of new offices in Rwanda, Malawi and Uganda over the next three years. At the time, I was spending a lot of time in San Francisco trying to find funding for various start-up ideas. It became clear to me that Silicon Valley VC space was becoming very insular, people were funding social networks built around other social networks and web apps for tasks like sorting email. My work was more social entrepreneurial and the response in the Valley was lukewarm at best. So I decided I’d go to Africa with her and execute my own ideas.

Q: Appfrica.net sprung onto the scene earlier this year. Where do you see that going, and how will you utilize it as a platform while in Africa?

Jon: App+frica is an initiative that facilitates African software developers and internet entrepreneurs. It’s entirely self-funded. Unfortunately, there aren’t many organizations outside of Africa that see the benefit of mentoring students and entrepreneurs in technology.

Appfrica also organizes events and workshops for local developers. Things like the Facebook Developer Workshop (18 October 2008) and Kampala Barcamp (19 August 2008), the upcoming µganda (Mobile Apps Uganda) and App+Asia. I also do hands on workshops where I’m teaching young developers programming and web development skills that will make them more competitive in the world market. You can read more at Appfrica.org.

The blog is Appfrica.net. Essentially it’s about innovation, development, social media and the internet as it all relates to Africa. There’s been some pretty healthy discussions around the content and Although I currently write everything, I’ve reached out to some local people who are considering joining the staff.

code.appfrica.net is a software repository that hosts and facilitates African developers. You might call it an Amazon S3-like service for Africa. Because there is no easy way to purchase things via the web in Africa (because many financial institutions don’t offer credit cards), something that many people don’t really have is access to is personal space on web servers outside of school. An even bigger problem is that there are very few local servers here and using anything hosted outside of the continent can be incredibly slow. It’s my goal to offer free, local server space to developers so that they can learn from each other, communicate freely and share. The site consists of a forum for African programmers, a subversion (SVN) server and a web version control system (TRACS). It also offers distributed file storage for developers like S3.

Beyond that, I try my best to help reshape misconceptions about Africa in the west by participating in technology conferences around the world. Even in the age of information people are surprisingly ignorant about Africa…especially when it comes to technology. When I mention Africa to people in the western business world, they overwhelmingly start asking questions about Darfur, Idi Amin and Robert Mugabi. It’s especially difficult to get technology conferences to let anyone in to even represent Africa or African technology companies.

The people of Africa account for over 14% of the worlds population and despite the AIDS epidemic, that number is growing (according to the C.I.A’s World Factbook). Why do people to often look the other way when it comes to technology and business here? Are businesses really afraid or do they just not understand the African market enough to care? The blog has largely become a way to get people in the West noticing all the wonderful things going on in the IT space here while also reporting the latest tech news for Africans.

Q: What is Question Box and what are your plans for that project?

Jon: QuestionBox.org is a project launched by Rose Shuman who lives in Los Angeles, CA in the United States. Her idea was to essentially allow people in rural areas around the world to use the internet via their mobile phones. It works like this: people in rural areas call or SMS the service with their question. A local operator consults a database (which also includes web searches) to discover the answer to those questions. The operator then responds in the local language.

My role as Chief Technical Officer is to build the software backend and to help direct growth and scalability. The service will allow for use via mobile device, the web or phone. For the SMS portion we’re integrating a micro-messaging application. When people SMS in their questions, we can index them and add them to a database that can be searched quickly offline. We can also publish the database online for the benefit of researchers or people using the web. Since internet connections aren’t as reliable as they are in the West, the service is built to work offline and only crawls the internet when it has a connection.

This allows people in rural, developing areas to get access to relevant information without the need for computers which are often not an option. What is an option, often already available, is mobile devices which have very high penetration numbers in the African market.

It’s our goal to democratize information in emerging markets using technology. So far the pilot programs have been huge regional successes. QuestionBox ran pilot programs in India last year and it encouraged her to expand to other areas of India as well as Africa starting with rural Uganda.

Q: You’ve been on the ground in Uganda for a couple weeks. First impressions?

Jon: One month exactly and we’ll be here for the next three years. We just got a house in the suburbs of the capital city Kampala. Getting reliable internet has been a huge chore, but that could be expected. I love it so far. Kampala is great, it’s very diverse and friendly. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Africa. I’ve got meetings next month in Rwanda and Tanzania and I’m working on going to Kenya and Egypt which are among the leaders of ICT development in the region.