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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

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Links from Mobile Africa

Mobile Subscriber Growth in Africa

A new report shows that Africa has 12% of the new mobile subscribers in the world, adding 20.1 million in Q1 2010. That’s a sizable amount. What’s actually more interesting to me is that they’re saying that the continent now has 47% penetration, which means that there’s a lot of growth yet to be had as compared to the rest of the world.

[One of these days I’ll have the £400 to purchase and really dig into these reports…]

Street hackers and the Neighbourhood App Store

Jan Chipchase gives us some background on how the mobile phone street-hacker culture originates:

“I like to think of it as a neighbourhood app store – and in many ways it’s the edges of the internet, where entrepreneurs are taking content online and offering it to local, offline and/or technologically illiterate customers. Also these corner shop app stores can be content editors for their community: they filter content they think their customers like, but they also guide what their customers might like as well.”

Nokia battles the Chinese

As David put it, “Nokia lost the high end to iPhone/Android/Blackberry, now battling China’s cheap phones on the low end. Things not looking good.” (link)

“For instance, it sold 432 million devices in 2009, or more than its top three competitors combined, however, its average selling price for all models has plummeted 44 percent in the past five years to 62 euros.”

Mocality: Mobile Business Listings for Africa

It’s not often that you hear of a tech startup from South Africa who chooses to build and deploy their product to Kenya first. In fact, I’ve never heard of such a thing. However, that is just what is happening with Mocality, a mobile and web-based business listings and directory application built for Africa.

Mocality’s job: create a digital platform that makes it easy for business owners to promote and expand their businesses in Africa.

“As a business owner, you get free SMS, a contact list, a free mobile website and a free mobile business card.”

Mocality represents this change in the paradigm that we’ve seen coming on for years in Africa. An application built agnostic to the client platform (mobile phone or PC), where data is fed into whatever you use in a meaningful way. Where the mobile usage is just as rich as the PC use.

In fact, they’ve studied usage of mobile phones on their system and have seen the usage of smartphones to be so negligible as to not matter. As CEO Stefan Magdalinski says, “This is the Mocality reality: RIM, Android, Apple are 2% of usage.”

About the Team

Successful startups generally have great leaders, Mocality has that. Stefan Magdalinski (@smagdali) is a seasoned web veteran and entrepreneur, co-founder of Moo.com and an early entrant into the programming space in England in the mid-90’s, and just recently relocating to South Africa for Mocality. They have plenty of funding, from MIH, a subsidiary of Naspers Group (who has been eying Kenya with recent forays such as Kalahari and Haiya).

I’ve met with Stefan in Kenya and South Africa, and I’ve also had the chance to meet some of the members of his team here in Nairobi. The impression that I’m left with is that this is a serious startup, with plenty of funding and a great vision and a strategy put in place to pull it off.

How it Works

Mocality is built for Kenyan businesses that don’t have enough money (or value to gain) to advertise in a print directory.

Again, a paradigm shift. They’re saying that they don’t care about the big end of the power law of distribution (the big companies), only the longtail (small, marginalized businesses). This is apparent in the images below of their typical user:

  • SMS, WAP & Web tools (now J2Me, iPhone)
  • Businesses can self list
  • Geo-coding All business locations
  • Map view of business
  • Business toolkit:
    1. Add customers & suppliers
    2. Send bulk messages (400 free SMS monthly) (but with anti-spam controls)
    3. Send mobile business card
    4. Add details (e.g. Menus, Special Offers)
  • Website, google optimised (white hat only)

Important to business owners in this segment is that the platform is free. Services will be added to the platform over time that business owners can pay for, but currently the only cost to them is data or SMS usage on their own mobile phone to access Mocality.

Scaling using the Crowd

Initially, the Mocality team walked all over Nairobi getting businesses to put their listings on the platform. They were successful, and in about 6 months of hard work were able to get approximately 11,000 businesses listed. That’s good, but barely puts a dent in the number of companies operating in this city.

The team then launched a crowdsourcing option, where they experimented with allowing anyone in Nairobi to add their own (and other’s) businesses to Mocality, and they got paid a bounty to do so. Within the last 6 weeks they have as many listings entered as the previous 6 months. If you live in Nairobi and want to become an agent, you need a WAP-enabled cameraphone and only need to visit http://www.mocality.com/money.

That’s impressive, but the impact is even more apparent when you look at the visualization:

If you have a business in Nairobi, you can get your listing onto it by visiting www.mocality.com email to info@mocality.co.ke or SMS callme to 2202 from within Kenya.

The “Nokia: Innovating Africa” presentation

A special thanks to all of the commentors from the last couple days who gave of their opinions to help Nokia think differently about innovating in Africa. It was these comments that I channeled, where I served as a messenger to tell the Nokia executives who flew in from all over the continent and Europe for this meeting in Nairobi.

Nokia: Innovating in Africa talk

Points made in the talk

[Note: most of these points came directly from the readers on my last post.]

First, stop treating the Middle East and Africa as a single region. If you’re serious about Africa, treat it as its own region.

Second, stop colluding with the operators and start colluding with your customers.

The mobile space is more nuanced now, it’s difficult to create a handset that will change your fate, instead it’s a mixture of software, apps, web platforms and data costs (as well as handsets) that decide your future.

Engage developers, third party programmers and businesses is where innovation comes from, not a large, slow company.

Standardize your UI and OS, strengthen your APIs. Get out of the way and let software developers innovate on a platform.

Make it easy for developers to make money, even in Africa. Figure out a way that people get paid and can bill via your server-side offerings like Ovi.

Take some of the big money that’s being thrown at high-profile “global social change competitions”, which generally attract Western organizations, and do more smaller-scale work at the grassroots level.

A large percentage of users can’t afford the data plan to get on your own websites and the Ovi store. Zero rate them. There’s no reason you shouldn’t be eating Facebook’s, Twitter’s and Google’s lunch in this, as Nokia has deeper penetration with mobile operators than almost anyone else on the continent.

Consider a specialized site for Africa, loading fast on low bandwidth.

You were too slow on the dual SIM card movement, that if anything showed you had lost your innovative practices in the emerging markets like Africa.

Today it’s driving the cheapest candybar phone to the lowest possible price. Good, keep that up. While you’re doing so, make the battery last longer and keep thinking of great ways to recharge it (solar or bicycle dyno).

But, look ahead are realize that even here in Africa, people want Smartphones with real web browsers, social networking and entertainment apps. Do it for under $100.

You don’t want to hear it, but I’ll say it anyway. Software isn’t your strong point, hardware is. Consider embracing Android.

How about a multi-touch dual-SIM Android smartphone for under $100… can you do it?

SD cards = digital storage. In fact, provide these with content already on them, including books, encyclopedias, etc.

Cloud-based services, including heavy application processes, would mean deeper penetration into phones with less RAM, content backup, and a content creation and sharing link that is still untapped.

Be the first to implement 802.21 in your handsets, allowing a seamless handover from WiFi to GSM/GPRS. Lead the charge to fully IP-enabled phones.

Finally, nothing will get better by holding to the status quo and slipping into mediocrity. Now is the time for daring exploits, especially in the places with the most growth potential and where your competition is either light or weak.

Africa is ripe for experimental phones and financing models, what is new coming out of Africa first?

Geeking out on a Motorcycle Trip

Today I had a lot of fun, one of my old schoolmates (Markus) from here in Kenya asked me if I wanted to get out of Nairobi and hit the trails on our motorcycles. Of course, the answer was yes. We headed out towards Naivasha early this morning and then took a side road off towards the escarpment.

The roads are dirt and with the recent rains they’re really quite rugged and beyond most normal vehicles. Markus is an experienced trail rider on a KTM 450 (kitted out), I’ve ridden a lot of trails, but years ago and not nearly as experienced as Markus – and I’m riding an offroad/onroad Suzuki DR 650 (stock).

We ended up having to run through, and beside, a lot of 5-10 acre farms that sit at the base of the escarpment in order to find a road up to the top of the escarpment. A lot of this was on cow paths and required some fine-tuned leveraging of our bikes through gates and streams. The road to the top of the escarpment, when found was a fun ride, minus the part where I wiped out on a simple turn (the one below)…

Bruises (and bruised ego) aside, we kept going up into small-farm, where quite a few more people live, and which is almost entirely denuded of trees that were there just 15 years ago.

After talking to some of the local community, we were advised to head down a certain road, with assurances that it would lead us to the bottom of the escarpment. It did, eventually, but not until we had backtracked, sidetracked, followed animal trails (in buffalo country), and then realized that the washed out gully we were in was supposed to be the road.

3.5 hours of wrestling a mammoth 650cc bike through this terrain left me exhausted. This type of bike is not made for that level of technical riding down boulder strewn gully’s and game trails. However, it was also hugely rewarding when we finally found our way to the bottom of the escarpment and much easier riding.

Mapping the Malewa Motorcycle Trip

I also brought my Android Nexus One along for the ride, hoping that the battery life would allow me to use it for tracking our trip. The Nexus One has a GPS, and there’s an Android app called My Tracks, that tracks your trip, allows you to add waypoints, then easily shares it to Google’s MyMaps.

Here is the result:


View Malewa Motorcycle Trip in a larger map

It doesn’t look very exciting like that, but it does give you the exact data for having your own challenging ride if you’re in Kenya.

Quick Hits in the African Tech Space

Indian firm Bharti buys up Zain Africa
The biggest news in the African tech space is Bharti’s $10.7 billion purchase of Zain’s African operations, which operates mobile networks in 17 countries in Africa. Apparently, some believe that Africa’s potential makes Zain deal value fair. (Zain’s African countries: Burkina Faso, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambiaand Morocco.)

Google continues getting Africa on the map

Google Maps was launched in 30 Sub-Saharan African countries
. That’s an amazing asset for everyone to use, and it’s also an incredible testament to the number of users using their “My Maps” feature, as this is where this data comes from.

On the growth of tech hubs in Africa
Rebecca Wanjiku wrote an article on IDG about, “Tech labs move beyond corporations in sub-Saharan Africa“. She’s a member of the Nairobi iHub advisory group, and has more insight than most in this space.

South Africa’s Design Indaba
It’s happening right now in Cape Town (Feb 24 – 26, 2010). Great design, and great speakers, but I was really intrigued by their kids program.

Location based service launches in Nigeria
StarTrack is a new location based tracking service in Nigeria, Loy Okezie has a good overview of this new service from Starcomms.

Internet & Mobile Stats: Africa Grows Fastest in the World (2009)

Each year the International Telecommunications Union puts out statistics on the state of mobile and internet data around the world. What I’m interested in is their “Information Society Statistical Profiles 2009 – Africa” report, put out just this week. Here are some key takeaways, but you should really go download the full report for yourself.

A decade of ICT penetration in Africa

“By the end of 2008, Africa had 246 million mobile subscriptions and mobile penetration has risen from just five per cent in 2003 to well over 30 per cent today. The high ratio of mobile cellular subscriptions to fixed telephone lines and the high mobile cellular growth rate suggest that Africa has taken the lead in the shift from fixed to mobile telephony, a trend that can be observed worldwide. The number of Internet users has also grown faster than in other regions.”

ICT penetration rates in Africa over the last 10 years

Despite this growth rate, penetration is far below the rest of the world. As the report states, “Less than 5% of Africans use the Internet, and fixed and mobile broadband penetration levels are negligible.” The global average is 23% internet penetration. This is due mainly to cost, but also to coverage over a very large continent that lacks population density outside of major cities.

Not all of Africa is created equal

If you’re a company trying to make money off of providing services or products to mobile phone users in Africa, you have to think strategically. You can see from the chart below that the countries you should focus on first are Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania and Côte d’Ivoire.

Mobile subscriptions by country in Africa

This holds true for the internet as well. You’ll note that many of the top countries for mobile penetration are also countries with a strong internet growth rate.

Internet growth rate by country in Africa

“According to a recent household survey conducted by Research ICT Africa, the main location of Internet use in such countries as Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania and Zambia is the cyber/Internet café.”

Leapfrogging… with a catch

Many reports you read will sing the praises of the mobile networks and how the leapfrogging of landlines has helped Africa. That’s true, and I’m one of those people. However, it comes with a catch, and that catch is that the lack of landlines in Africa means that it’s a lot harder to get fixed-line broadband penetration, whether ADSL or otherwise. This keeps prices high and primarily availability is only in urban areas.

This gives the mobile operators a significant advantage in Africa, and it’s the reason why 3G (mobile broadband) technology is leading the way and why most of the growth will be through the mobile networks.

Fixed Broadband Growth in Africa

To put it in real numbers. By the end of 2008 there were only 635,000 fixed-line broadband subscribers in all of Africa, representing 0.1% of the population, whereas the world average is 6%. Mobile broadband sees 7 million subscribers with a penetration representing 0.9% of the population, again 6% being the global average.

In Summary

This report is an absolute gold mine of valuable data on internet and mobile phone usage, penetration and growth rates in Africa. I could go on with more graphs and thoughts on each section, but you should do yourself a favor and download the free copy and read it.

Finally, some last charts showing mobile cellular subscriptions, mobile broadband and internet subscriptions by country in Africa:

Internet users by country in Africa

Mobile subscribers and mobile broadband by country in Africa

African Mobile Market, Q2 2009 Numbers

Africa has 415,010,625 mobile phone subscribers, with an average growth rate across the continent of 5.4% between Q1 and Q2 2009.

Africa and Middle East Mobile Telecoms Market in Figures: Q2 2009Blycroft does an excellent job of aggregating data on African mobile phone markets each quarter. They’ve compiled their report for Q2 2009 which includes subscriber numbers and other useful data, titled “The Africa and Middle East Mobile Telecoms Market in Figures 2Q 2009“. The mobile data includes GSM and CDMA networks, but excludes fixed and CDMA-wireless networks, which are classed as an extension of the fixed network. Make sure you get over to their site and pickup the full report, available for £399.

Mobile subscriber growth numbers by African region:

African mobile phone subscriber numbers - graph by region

comparing Q1 to Q2 2009

Statistics for the North Africa region for 2Q 2009 cover 6 states and 131,109,223 subscribers, up from 123,903,195 in 1Q 2009, and representing a net gain of 7,206,028 ( 5.8 percent)

Statistics for East Africa cover 12 states and 61,983,813 subscribers, up from 58,257,266 in the previous quarter – an increase of 6 percent. Year- on-year growth saw some additional 18,382,201 mobile subscribers in the region; a growth of 42 percent.

Statistics for South Africa cover 10 states and 62,175,521 subscribers, up from 60,093,764 in the previous quarter – an increase of about 3.5%

Statistics for West Africa cover 16 states and 125,616,329 subscribers, up from 118,644,669 in 4Q 2008 – an increase of approximately 6%.

Statistics for Central Africa covers 11 states, and 34,125,739 subscribers. (Note: I’m missing the Q1 2009 numbers for Central Africa, if you have them, please pass them on so I can update the chart)

Top 20 African States by Mobile Penetration

There’s not much available in the non-pay version to see, in fact, they’ve removed almost every meaningful number and graph. However, there is one graphic covering the top 20 African states by mobile penetration.

Top 20 African States by Mobile Penetration

As usual, South Africa and Egypt show large subscriber numbers, both at around 50 million users. Interestingly, penetration in South Africa is over 100%, but is still only at 60% in Egypt, meaning there will be much more growth there than South Africa in the future.

When discussing penetration rates, we always see a higher proportion of small and island countries due to the fact that it takes a lot less mobile users to have a significant percentage covered. Unfortunately, that’s somewhat meaningless in a chart like this, because they’re mixing small with large countries. More useful would be two charts that are separated on population levels.

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.

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.]

Should we be Building SMS or Internet Services for Africa?

Interesting mobile phone

Probably one of my favorite discussions of this trip was entered into after the Uganda Linux User Group (LUG) meeting here in Kampala. It was about whether we should be providing internet protocol (IP) services first, rather than SMS. If cost is the single most important factor for any mobile service aimed at ordinary Africans, then what will it take to move the ball from the SMS court to the IP court? This isn’t just for non-profits to consider, but everyday businesses as well.

Phones that can access data networks have always been in short supply here, so the easy answer has always been to use SMS, just because that’s what people have in their pocket and can use right now. While there are great arguments for either decreasing the costs of SMS, or of moving to IP, the practicality of that was remote due to the costs involved. Either you need a big organization, or a government, who can force the mobile operators to lower their rates on SMS (their cash cow), or you need to have the costs of data-enabled phones to decrease enough that the majority of users switch to them.

There is an argument that says that Grameen’s and Google’s recent deal with MTN Uganda didn’t go far enough in pushing for free, or cheaper, messaging for their new services. Whether you agree or disagree on that matter isn’t relevant if you bypass the argument altogether and provide services via data, which is drastically cheaper, using SMS as the backup.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that for the first time, last year, mobile phones shipped to Africa with data service capabilities outnumbered the simple SMS-only phones that are so prevalent on the continent (Gartner 2009). Of course, this doesn’t mean that there will be a majority of IP accessible phone users immediately, but it is on its way.

Equally important to understand, and a point that increases the momentum of the mobile services over IP argument, is the fact that where there is mobile penetration, there is also available data services. This stands true in Uganda, where MTN says there is 92% GPRS coverage on their network. It’s even true in countries still trying to catch up, like Liberia, where though there are only islands of coverage, that coverage generally comes with data.

Reinier Battenberg, who runs the only local hosting in Uganda, brought up a great point. The fact that Google and Grameen weren’t able to significantly alter MTN’s position on the prices of SMS doesn’t matter. What matters is that Google didn’t offer an IP-based solution for their new Google Trader that they launched. That’s simply unbelievable! It’s doubtful if that type of work would take more than a day for an engineer to implement. Instead of effectively providing an end-run on the strategy around SMS, they just played the same game that the operator wants to play and will win. Something that Google really wants to do is drive people to the web, so why not at least provide web-services for those that can use it? It doesn’t make sense… all around it’s both curious and a questionable strategy.

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