Tag Archives: sms

Ghana’s Saya App Pitches at TechCrunch Disrupt

There’s a Ghana email list of tech guys that I’m on. Opening my email this morning, I was pleasantly surprised to see that a Ghanaian team was pitching last night at TechCrunch Disrupt.

Saya is an app for texting. That mixes SMS, Facebook chat and hyperlocal findability to get in conversations with those near you. They’re on Android, Blackberry and waiting for their iPhone app to be approved.

Robert’s pitch revolves around the 5.8 billion NON-smartphones in the world, and how that market has needs that need to be addressed by apps like their own. Ways to communicate via SMS in a much more elegant way.

Saya isn in a tough position, trying to get US and European-based investors to think that anything to do with old tech like SMS can be big is quite difficult. Their paradigm is set in the West’s way of thinking about being intoxicated the newest tech, not understanding how much of the world more fully uses each technology before discarding it.

Without knowing anything about how many users Saya has, I can say that it looks like an app that will really work in Africa and therefore many other parts of the world. Just looking at the app, it seems that they have a strong focus on product, and are paying attention to things like design details that really do matter.

Good job guys, and good luck!

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.

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.

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.

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.

Traffic Updates by SMS in Nigeria

eNowNow is a service in Nigeria where anyone with a mobile phone can sign up to receive updates on traffic conditions in different areas around Lagos.

How it Works

Traffic via SMS in Lagos Nigeria - mapArmed with a mobile phone, a team of 4-6 motorcyclists ride to different, pre-designate parts of the city. They take pictures of the current traffic conditions and MMS that image to the central office. That image is then geolocated and given a score of “slow”, “moving” or “free”. Anyone who has signed up for SMS or email alerts is then sent a message with the traffic update.

Challenges

I asked Simon, one of the people putting the service into action, what some of their challenges are. His reply:

“Collecting information in this way, although not that technical (lots of people have said why not use stationary webcams it would be technically superior), is turning out to be more difficult than we expected. Finding people who can grasp the concept behind the service, ride well through the crazy Lagos traffic, and are reliable has been tricky, added to that we’ve had lots of issues around harassment and even arrests from the police (many police officers apparently believe you need special police permission to take photos of traffic) and just recently the weather has been in our way as the rainy season has just started in Lagos making operations more difficult and a few phones have been dropped in puddles! “

The business side

eNowNow doesn’t see much value in charging premium SMS rates for their services. They believe margins are low, and they don’t think the uptake would be high enough amongst their target market to make it work. Instead, they have plans to subsidize the service with revenues from licensing traffic information to Sat Nav providers and logistics companies.

“In Nigeria the networks will take anything between 40 and 75% of a premium SMS’s cost to a subscriber for themselves (pull or push) leaving you a tiny margin for profitability and driving the industry standard (and therefore what the networks will allow you) per SMS cost higher. Most people think that traffic only affects those in cars and they can therefore afford to pay for a service, but most of Lagos’ population aren’t in that bracket and those on public transport still have choices about which buses they take, which routes and what time they leave work.”

Thoughts and ideas

Maybe it’s because I’m a motorcycle fan, or maybe it’s because I have a deeply ingrained detestation for being stuck in traffic in Africa’s mega cities, but this application hits the sweet spot for me. I’ve been wanting just this type of thing in Nairobi for a long time…

One additional idea, to make this even more dynamic, and spread it over the whole city is to create a way for ordinary drivers to text into the system when they come across a new or growing traffic problem. I imagine that Lagos has areas with traffic that is not on the pre-designated points that eNowNow operates in currently.

This is a classic locally grown tech initiative, and I hope that they can pull it off. If so, it can definitely be replicated in other major metro markets across the continent.

Obama’s New Media Strategies for Ghana

A couple weeks ago I had a discussion with President Obama’s New Media team, where we talked about what they might do to reach out to ordinary Ghanaians on his trip next week – which will culminate in his speech in Accra on July 11th. There is a lot of excitement in Africa around Obama, and this trip is going to set the continent humming.

Obama in Ghana - 2009

WhiteHouse.gov/Ghana isn’t live yet, but on July 11th, it will become available. They are going to stream the talk at whitehouse.gov/live.

It’s a fairly interesting initiative to undertake, with a slew of problems, as you try to engage with as many individuals in an open travel campaign as possible. At the same time, you know that any channel you open up will get absolutely flooded with incoming comments, questions and spam of every sort. In the end, the team decided that Radio, SMS, then Facebook would be the primary new media access points – and in that order.

Radio, SMS and Facebook

Radio is still the number one communications medium across Africa, and Ghana has a particularly vibrant and active one with a lot of local and national community interaction.

As everyone knows, mobile phone penetration has grown at an explosive rate in Africa, this means that SMS is a fairly democratic means for getting feedback from people of every demographic across the nation. (Funnily enough, not available to US-based residents – more below on that)

Lastly, there are no major homegrown web-based social networks in Ghana, and like many other countries across Africa Facebook has a decent amount of penetration. In Ghana, it’s at 100,000+, so it makes the most sense for the new media team to engage and interact without splitting their energy over too many services. Having Twitter on as a backup is natural, as there will be a great deal of chatter there as well.

The details (from the White House)

SMS. We’re launching an SMS platform to allow citizens to submit questions, comments and words of welcome (in English and in French) . Using a local SMS short code in Ghana (1731) , Nigeria (32969) , South Africa (31958) and Kenya (5683), as well as a long code across the rest of the world*, Africans and citizens worldwide will be encouraged to text their messages to the President. SMS participants will also be able to subscribe to speech highlights in English and French. Long numbers for mobile registration pan-Africa: 61418601934 and 45609910343.

This SMS platform is not available to US participants due to the Smith Mundt Act (The act also prohibits domestic distribution of information intended for foreign audiences).

Radio. A live audio stream of the President’s speech will be pushed to national and local radio stations during the speech. After the speech, a taped audio recording of the President’s answers to the SMS messages received will be made available to radio stations and websites. The President hopes to answer a variety of questions and comments by topic and region. The audio recording will also be made available for download on White House website and iTunes.

Video. The speech will be livestreamed at www.whitehouse.gov/live. The embed code for this video is available so you may also host the livestream on any Website.

Online chat. We will host a live web chat around the speech on Facebook (it will be at http://apps.facebook.com/whitehouselive). The White House will also create a Facebook “event” around the speech wherein participants from around the world can engage with one another. A Twitter hashtag (i.e. #obamaghana) will also be created and promoted to consolidate input and reaction around the event.

Obama talks about his upcoming trip

Part 1

Part 2

Africa’s Poor: Premium SMS in the Crossfire

If you provide services to poor people, should you make a profit?

That’s essentially the question raised by Katrin Verclas on MobileActive, and it’s an excellent one. Specifically, Katrin calls out the new Google Trader service offered by Google in Uganda, in conjunction with the release yesterday of their SMS products with Grameen and MTN Uganda, one of the local mobile phone operators. Basically, they charge 220 Ugandan Shillings per use, instead of the median 110 UGS charge across most networks. This is called a premium SMS rate.

Google Trader price in Uganda

Premium SMS rates are charged so that third-party service providers can make money off of services that they provide over the mobile phone network. The operator makes their (ridiculously high) profit as normal, and the overage is for the third-party. You’ll find a lot of dating, event and sports services offered in this way all over the world, not least across Africa.

Back to the question

The question posed is if people who are claiming to help the poor should charge, and if so, should they make a profit?

I think we’ve seen from the Grameen model in Bangladesh (ex: Grameen Bank and Grameen Phone’s Village Phone program) that you can (and possibly should). By doing so you help both parties; first, by providing a service that consumers value and are willing to pay for, and second by making the business of running an operation self-sustaining. Many good business, or project, ideas die due to lack of sustainable cash flow.

For instance, if a 220 shilling SMS can save you the 1500 shilling visit to the doctor or veterinarian, or give you a 10% higher return for your crops, is it worth it?

Is there a problem in the question?

There ends up being a paternalist nuance to that original question. After all, is it up to us to decide what services to offer the poor and at what price? Aren’t poor people able to make the value-based decision on whether a trip to the doctor is more useful to them than a call or an SMS to one? If services are being offered, the person making the decision to call, SMS or go physically to solve their problem, or not, is ultimately the arbiter of whether or not a service has merit and should be offered. It’s a classic market-led approach – if the price is too high for the service, equilibrium will not be reached and one will give, usually price.

This is particularly true when talking about for-profit companies offering services – like Google is with Google Trader. They don’t operate under the same development/grant funded subsidization that a lot of others do in Africa. Even if their goal was not to make a profit on this service, they still need to cover internal costs, as does every organization that isn’t provided with free money.

Final thoughts

This space in Africa, of offering services to the poor (in lieu of the governments actually doing their jobs), has been primarily “owned” by large development and aid organizations. This has created a false floor for the economy, as projects and initiatives are propped up by outside money and services rarely have to survive on their own. This is changing, as low cost and high value options come into the market, be they mobile phone operators providing new communication opportunities, or cheap chinese batteries and LED lights for local energy/lighting needs.

I’m sensing a flux in the space, like two bull buffaloes before they fight, the heavyweights in the aid industry and in business are circling each other before they knock heads. The marketing is over who is helping the poor and marginalized in Africa best. In the end the market will decide, and regardless of the messages spouted by both sides, the “poor African” will choose the winner.

If there’s a problem with collusion and price fixing in an industry (like there sometimes seems to be with SMS services in a country), that’s something beyond the scope of individuals and needs to be tackled separately by regulation. However, that’s not the case here, we have expensive SMS services in East Africa, but the new entrants into the space always offer low rates, and the costs of switching providers is relatively low.

No, this is market-based competitive services and both non-profits and for-profits have the right to offer them at whatever price they like. Equally, individuals have the right to use it or not, be they premium SMS rates or not.

I’d like to hear some other African’s thoughts on this.

Do you want big multinationals like Google and MTN coming in and providing their services to you? Should we be asking questions for the poor, or is that condescending in itself? What is the sticking point here, and is there a side that I’m missing?

**UPDATE**
Thanks to Katrin’s email to Rachel Payne, Google’s lead in Uganda, we have the following response from her on this topic, and it does clarify quite a few unknowns:

Hi Katrin.

Yes, I saw your blog post where you speak in detail about the pricing. However, what is written is not quite accurate. You see, Google, Grameen and MTN launched three types of mobile services yesterday: Google SMS Tips (targeting low-income, rural users primarily), Google SMS Search (urban, mainstream) and Google Trader (all users).

The second service is somewhat similar to other “premium SMS” content services currently available (except that it is built on Google search technology) and therefore, is the same price as other content services. To accommodate the first group, we have priced Google SMS Tips at half the price of a content service; this is available for the cost of a person-to-person SMS, which many rural individuals are willing and able to afford currently.

The third service drives income and livelihood benefits, so we decided to begin charging at the normal content service rate and monitor whether this excludes rural communities or not (we did extensive testing during the pilot, which included pricing discussions and most of the users found that Google Trader provided far greater, direct value than the 110 shilling price difference). For all services, we are offering them for free for the first few months, just to ensure that all users have an equal opportunity to try them out, risk-free and allow them to access critical content during this period so that they can assess whether or not they would like to continue to use the service.

I hope this helps provide a bit more information that clarifies the questions raised.

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