Text2Fly: Flight Schedules by SMS in Nigeria

Timi Agama was frustrated with his experiences in trying to get information about flights in Nigeria. It just didn’t make sense that there was no electronic means to track flight schedules. About five years ago he set out on a path to create a mobile solution for the problem. Out of that came Text2Fly, a mobile service that let’s you search for flight schedules by sending an SMS.

Text2Fly Nigeria

“The simple task of finding the next available flight is an inefficient and labor intensive undertaking for the Nigerian business traveller. Nigerian airlines don’t operate call centers and the Internet is slow. So the business traveller must assign staff to search all airline web sites or even send them to the ticketing office through stifling traffic.”

How it Works

A user sends in a text message to +447786201082 with a simple command, like “From Lagos to Abuja on Monday at 8am”. In response, the system gathers the information about all of the flights in Nigeria that fit your requirements, and sends them back to you as an SMS message.

As Timi states, this is ” A Nigerian solution to a Nigerian problem”. Interestingly, it’s not only useful in Nigeria, and I could see this same application being used elsewhere, not just in Africa but in the developed world as well.

I’m curious as to why the service is only available via SMS. It seems that if you have the data, then it’s easy to make it web-accessible. The advantage there is that you also can start creating ways for people to purchase tickets and thereby have another revenue stream.

The Business Behind Text2Fly

Text2Fly QuoteIn terms of business model Text2Fly is paid for by premium SMS once it officially launches. It’s free right now though, so definitely worth testing out to see how much it helps in your daily life.

User numbers are still modest because the site and backend system was only flipped on 3 weeks ago. There has been very limited marketing to this point, but there is a plan to launch a real-world and digital campaign once the service is fully tested and stable.

When I asked Timi about how local Nigerians are taking to the product, he stated:

The reactions from people who have used the service has been far better than I could have imagined. One chap I spoke to on the phone enthused about how Text2Fly is not just for busy business people but for “everybody”. Another told me a story of how he showed it to some friends while they were having a drink and all 7 of them stored the Text2Fly number.

[Note: David Ajao has also done a review, worth reading as he’s a fellow Nigerian.]

Why Mobile Operators Can’t Make Services That You Like

Last month I had a surreal experience as I sat in the Global Messaging Congress in London, listening to mobile operators talk about mobile phone services from their perspective. It’s a crazy world really, one where the providers of the infrastructure also mercilessly try to hold onto and strangle every drop of profit from any service that sits on their network.

We’re all born in a small “company town“, where the mobile operators are the landlord and the bank, the grocery store and the mafia.

Interestingly enough, there is a completely different industry built on a much more open standard that separates infrastructure from content, transactions and use. That is, the internet. So, as we get closer to a world where there is less of a difference between the mobile and web worlds, then we see what happens when a strangling monopoly won’t give in to an open system. The open system bypasses it.

Some examples

Multimedia
It starts getting humorous when you start looking at value-added services like location, video or images. I sat there and listened to the mobile operators talk about how “MMS will never be the equivalent of SMS” – their cash cow. Of course, not with them running it.

However, 2 days later we see this headline from YouTube, “just since last Friday, when the iPhone 3GS came out, uploads increased by 400% a day.” What? Yes, that’s a staggering number and it’s due to the fact that no operator is running it, they’re just selling the underlying data structure.

Messaging
Twitter is a great service that allows personal networks to form and SMS messaging to take place on an ever extending one-to-many and many-to-many basis. It also works on the web, in fact, that’s one of it’s great strengths – the ability to treat any channel as native. When I look at Twitter, which is 3 years old now, I have to wonder why we still don’t see a Twitter-clone offered up by any of the operators working in the 192 countries that Twitter isn’t in. For goodness sake, the only major cost for Twitter is the “to-many” part of it, and that’s virtually free to an operator on their own network.

Location based services
When the mobile operators of the world wanted to control their location services, in the early 2000s they kept their prices too high for large and small consumer-facing organizations to buy their services. So, the web went around them… The entrepreneurs saw an advantage to going out and getting the number off of every mobile phone tower and doing basic triangulation from them and WiFi signals. Voila, the operator is bypassed and now makes no revenue off of a service that it could have provided for a lower fee.

Operators can’t build real consumer services

I’ve heard a a number of comments from within the industry like this:

“we’ve had the ability to do such-and-such (insert your favorite third-party service here) for a long time, there’s nothing special about YouTube/Twitter/Apple doing this.”

This is a true statement (most of the time), so why are there millions clamoring for these other services and not the ones that the operators offer?

The release of increasingly more user-friendly phones, coupled with services that bypass the traditional restrictions placed upon everyone by the operators, has created a way for the internet players to replicate or make irrelevant many of these same services offered by the operators. This will continue to be the pattern too, as the two industries collide.

What the operators should do is open up their basic infrastructure for third-parties to build consumer-facing applications on. Take a smaller cut on each application or service, and create a true ecosystem that supports more developers and companies trying to figure out ways to make more money off of your framework.

Sembuse: East Africa’s First Mobile Social Network

For 15% of the cost of a normal 160 character SMS message in Kenya you can now send one with 1000 characters in it.

sembuse160_logoSembuse is a mobile social network. It’s a way for East Africans to connect with each other via short messaging, cheaper than normal SMS messages (much like it’s counterpart Mxit in South Africa). It’s a new release by Symbiotic, a Kenyan firm that specializes in making mobile phone related applications. To get the application on your phone, point your device to to m.sembuse.com (or s.zunguka.com). It’s a free download for anyone with a GPRS or 3G enabled phone, and you can try it out immediately.

Making Money

Mbugua Njihia is an entrepreneur, I’ve known him for a little while, and he’s focused on running profitable enterprises. There are two revenue streams at Sembuse.

Maneno Ads by Sembuse1. Value added services:

“Customized news alerts, real time stock market alerts and news, rave crave – that gives users a snapshot of the nightlife in their location, the gossip channel – that allows users to submit and share gossip with their friends, the sports bar – where sports fans can keep up to date with the happenings in their favorite sports and a video section with mobisodes across a variety of channels.”

2. Advertising
There is a proprietary hyper-targeting advertising platform – SembuseConnect that allows businesses to connect with their target market directly on their handset. They can book their ManenoAds (text adverts) and choose their desired target group on the Sembuse network from the ease and comfort of their mobile phone wherever they are. The advertisements are served immediately the order is confirmed.

I asked Mbugua about the advertising, and he got back to me with the following statement:

“Going into launch we have two advertisers on board on trials – Standard Investment Bank and Royal Media Services. For the larger FMCG’s and cooperates the approach is to use their ad agencies to book and manage the medium for themselves and the rate cards have already been dispatched. This however doesn’t prevent us from having a direct engagement with clients. The biggest source we hope will be individuals and small to medium sized enterprises who can place their own adverts through their mobile phones.”

In Summary

I’m really interested in seeing where this goes. The guys behind it are ambitious, and they’re doing something that I’ve thought for a long time needed to be done. I’m particularly glad to see that they’ve taken a two-pronged revenue approach. Relying on advertising alone in this economic environment wouldn’t be that promising, but by tapping into the end-user as well, there is added potential.

Finally, I wonder if we’ll see more people moving from their older SMS-only phones, with no data capability, to GPRS enabled phones. I know we saw this happen in the case of Mxit in South Africa, so I wonder if the same will be the case in East Africa.

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