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Tag: sms (page 2 of 3)

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.

Screenshots

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.

Liberian Bush Radio Escapades

Today finds me off in Bopola, a town well off the beaten track North of Monrovia, Liberia – where I’ve taken a lot of pictures and had a good time getting out of the city. I hitched a ride with an American NGO taking breeding rabbits upcountry, so the back of the pickup truck had 80 furry big-ears in it. It smelled some, since they had picked them up in Guinea 2 days before.

Handing out rabbits in Liberia

I saw this fascinating creation called a BUV on their station before I left too. 3 wheels, and it looks like it can haul anything.

BUV

The ride was just what I was looking for; providing me a chance to get out and see how the country really breathes and moves. The outskirts of Monrovia are hectic, as you would expect, but as soon as you get out it slows waaaay down.

Radio Gbarpola

One of my main missions while out is to talk to some rural community radio managers. When we got in, I made contact with the owner/manager of Radio Gbarpola and we had a good 2-hour discussion on their technology, programming, practices and business growth possibilities.

radio gbarpola in liberia

International Alert has pumped a decent amount of money into a number of strategically located community radio facilities. Radio Gbarpola is one of them, and boasts a bank of solar powered batteries, a 300 watt transmitter, a split studio, a 2-deck CD and tape player, and a motorcycle (for the news reporter to visit locations on). That’s some spread!

As I had expected, this radio station is one of the only ways anyone in much of the county can find out what is going on within the county. They currently cover 2/3 of it, and with a repaired or new antenna, they can reach all of it. The only mobile phone antennas are owned by Lonestar, and it doesn’t have nearly the reach of the radio station.

Getting interviewed at Radio Gbarpola

While there, they insisted on a quick interview as well – I hope the Liberians in Gbarpola county can understand my American English… 🙂

New technology injection

Being myself, after exhausting my question supply, I started demo’ing what you could do with just a SIM card, mobile phone, and a computer. The first thing out was a quick test of FrontlineSMS there, which worked like a charm. I explained how a setup like that could add a new revenue stream as well, if they started selling text ads.

Then, I went on to talk about what we did in Kenya with Ushahidi, and ask about what they thought of similar technology in Liberia. Interestingly enough, it turns out that all “important” information seems to filter into the radio quickly. It’s either direct to, or direct to police-to-radio.

That that has started me thinking about is using the 50+ community radio stations in Liberia as nodes in a larger network. I’m thinking it might be possible to set up a number of them with a FrontlineSMS system that uses Mesh4x to sync certain information between them and up to Headquarters in Monrovia. Just an idea at this point, but well worth doing more discovery on.

[Note: How did I manage to post way out in the middle of nowhere? Aforementioned NGO has a nice slow connection, and I have all night to upload these resized images…]

Rural Community Radio in Africa

DSC_0265 Tuareg radio deejay

It’s not true if the radio doesn’t say it.

That was a reply from a rural Liberian farmer to Malcolm Joseph, the managing director of the Center for Media Studies in Liberia. He shared that with me as I discussed the way communication has happened between the media and the public here over the past few years. It’s an interesting challenge, trying to marry up communication channels and technology mediums to be as effective as you can be across a varied and spread out demographic.

Radio is important. It’s still the main way that rural groups get their news. Newspaper circulation drops drastically outside of the cities. While many countries have at least a couple of radio stations of national reach, you still find a number of smaller radio stations that work within districts, down to the the real rural community radio stations that operate with a 5-10 kilometer radius.

The question we have to ask ourselves is, how do we connect better through this medium? It’s not good enough to just say that, “mobile phone coverage is good enough”. Even though the mobile coverage might be good, the credibility and community-inclusiveness of even a small radio station means that it cannot be ignored when trying to reach ordinary Africans. Add in illiteracy rates, which are typically higher in rural areas, and it becomes even more important.

Not ever web or mobile service needs to consider this, but we all need to think better on how to integrate radio into the mobile and web world in Africa. This isn’t just a post for aid and development groups either, it’s for people who want to create digital services that reach beyond African urban settings.

More thoughts and resources:

NaijaPulse: Microblogging in Nigeria

I was pleased to find out about a NaijaPulse yesterday, through Loy Okezie at Startup Africa. It’s a new microblogging platform, like Twitter, except made to operate in Nigeria (Twitter used to be global, but shut that down to just the US, Canada and India last summer). Everyone is tied to a 140-character update limit, and as Twitter is showing, that is plenty.

NaijaPulse - Microblogging for Nigeria

I really like what NaijaPulse has done with connecting the service to Facebook and Twitter. That way users of the service don’t need to duplicate their entries in both systems. They’ve also created a group feature and support the OpenMicroBlogging protocol that let’s their service share with others easily.

Growing Africa’s federated microblogging network

NaijaPulse represents a significant step forward on the African continent: utilizing the web + mobile phone to provide communication services that can ultimately be built on top of. I know of one other project going on to do the same thing in another African country. My hope is that we see this implementation of federated systems continue to proliferate around the continent. Where we can find localized versions for every country, but that also allow you to connect to a broader network if you so choose.

From the founder:

“The idea of NaijaPulse is that instead of we Africans or Nigerians getting lost in Twitter, we can use NaijaPulse where we get to meet more people from the same background, country or even streets, in doing this we get more fun from this service because our stories will be more familiar and similar and our community will be more fun. But even so, we can still even sync to both Twitter and Facebook from NaijaPulse – its a win and win situation.”

This idea of a local microblogging platforms for each country/region is where I differ on opinion from Loy. I don’t think that NaijaPulse should try to go for an Africa-wide platform. Instead, they should focus on Nigeria and getting ordinary, non-tech people using their platform. Then, as other sites like this come online around the continent, they should link up and make sure their services are compatible (which should be the case, since they’ll all likely use Laconica).

The SMS problem

Currently, NaijaPulse does not truly support SMS functionality. Instead they use your carrier’s email gateway to send and receive messages. This is a problem, as it hamstrings the future growth of a “general user” consumer base that have only basic SMS-enabled phones, and no data plans, in Nigeria. The reason why is simple, it costs to send SMS messages (not receive). If you have a person that sends out an update, and they have 100 people receiving that update via SMS then it gets expensive. Who carries that cost?

There area two possible outcomes. First, that NaijaPulse figures out a business model that allows for them to cover the cost for their service (most likely it would include subscription model and/or advertising). Second, if they can draw enough of a following, they might be able to go the way of Mxit in South Africa. Their Java-based app sits on the phone, and so a lot of people have found a way to upgrade their phones and get a data plan.

What’s next?

I think we’ll start to see new microblogging services showing up in the “hot spots” of African digerati around the continent. Nigeria was an obvious first choice, followed by the South Africans, Ghana and someone in East Africa (Uganda).

Whoever does figure out a model that works in Africa could be sitting on a gold mine of users. If there was ever a simple communication service that can work well in almost every part of Africa, this could be it.

Mobile-XL: SMS Browser for Mobiles in Africa

In the summer of 2008, US-based Mobile-XL launched their new SMS browser in Kenya. I had been in touch with their CEO Guy Kamgaing-Kouam, via email, but we had never had always just missed each other in Kenya or in the US. Since then, I’ve been watching them closely, and seeing how their business unfolds as they target African nations with their new service. They are starting with Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, but are aiming to roll out in South Africa, Cameroon and Nigeria soon.

Mobile-XL

Big, Strong Moves

It seems that Mobile-XL is doing well. In July, they partnered with Fonexpress, a Kenyan retail chain of ICT products and services to provide content and services. In November, they announced that mobile pioneer Alieu Conteh, Chairman of Vodacom Congo, has agreed to join the Board of Advisors.

Today, they have announced their biggest news, a collaboration with Nokia to start embedding its SMS based browser in mobile phones for selected African markets. This, of course, is the big prize for any mobile application developer: the chance to have your application bundled with the base-level software available out-of-the-box.

“As early as March 2009, a select series of Nokia handsets shipping into Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania will be equipped with the firms XLBrowser software service.”

The XLBrowser, and why it matters

Guy, and his team at Mobile-XL, have built the XLBrowser. This is a J2ME (Java) application that utilizes SMS to provide instant access to global and local information using almost any mobile phone. The XLBrowser’s interface allows users to select and instantly receive information, news, sports, finance, entertainment, games, music, and more. Costs appear to be slightly more expensive than a basic SMS message (10/= shillings in Kenya).

Though the XLBrowser is a walled garden (content-wise), it is still particularly innovative as they use SMS to send data. This type of technology is perfect for places in rural Africa where WAP, GPRS and internet connections are limited at best. This is the beginnings of something very interesting.

Many make claims to “bridging the digital divide”, as do the people at Mobile-XL. But, in this case I think they’re right. It’s not just another application that relies on strong mobile data connections, but one that can work off the very lowest common denominator – which is what is needed in much of Africa today.

Their next big trick will be to bring on as many new subscribers as possible, and that only happens when there is real value added through the use of the application. With strong content offerings, ones that people in Africa truly care about, they could very well pull this off.

Personally, I’d love to see more businesses take on this challenge. Using SMS to connect Africans to the rest of the web, and the world.

Google’s SMS Search in Ghana and Nigeria

Yesterday Google announced that they had enabled searching for information by mobile phones in Nigeria and Ghana. You simply text in your query in to Google’s shortcode, which is 4664, and wait for a response by SMS.

Google SMS Search in Nigeria

After a quick check with someone at Google Kenya, I verified that these are the only two African countries that Google has released SMS search in at this point. It seems that this would be quite simple for Google to turn on in almost every country in Africa, so I wonder if one of the bottlenecks is actually getting the specific shortcode that they want (4664 or “GOOG”).

Though it’s hit or miss on some of the queries right now, at least it was as I tested it through the web interface, it’s still a valuable service that I hope the make available in more countries soon. They’re following the basic rules for technology in Africa, which is to design for the lowest common denominator: SMS-only mobile phones.

Tanzanian Farmers and Their SMS-Empowered Market Spy

What happens when a member of your agricultural community spends time investigating the supply chain for your goods? Meet Stanley Mchome, who uses a mobile phone to send back prices and collect information on rice prices and customer satisfaction for his community. His activities have not only helped to empower local farmers but to substantially increase their incomes.


(Video link)

I love these kinds of stories. They showcase so well what can happen when a community is using technology to overcome inefficiencies.

Ushahidi in the Congo (DRC)

When we pushed the first version of Ushahidi live in Kenya, I was trying to juggle that as I spoke at a conference in New York. Today, we’re deploying the new Ushahidi Engine (v0.1) into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and I’m in Rhode Island speaking at another conference. I’m starting to see a pattern emerge…

Reporting Incidents from the Congo

The DRC deployment can be found at http://DRC.ushahidi.com, and the mobile number to send SMS reports to is +243992592111.

Ushahidi Deployed to the Congo (DRC)

Note: This is the alpha software for Ushahidi. If you find any problems, please submit them to bugs.ushahidi.com.

How you can help

Get the word out. Let people know the mobile number (+243992592111) and website (drc.ushahidi.com). Help get word to the Congolese on the ground in the DRC of this tool, that’s who needs to know about it.

Things are serious in the Congo… They are bad, very bad. As Sean Jacobs states:

“Since August this year at least 250,000 people have been left homeless in Eastern Congo in the latest outbreak of a civil war described here as between government troups and a rebel group claiming to protect ethnic Tutsis. At least 2 million people are refugees from that war which dates back to 1996.”

It’s a difficult situation, with a swirling mixture of militia and armed forces, compounded by particularly brutal and confusing activities. External military forces, years of displacement and a misinformation mar the landscape.

A new Ushahidi, a new test

To be quite honest, we’re a little nervous, just as we were the first time. The new engine still has a few bugs, and there are some process flow issues that we’re still trying to get figured out. This time we’re backed up by a group of competent developers who are working to get things straightened out. Want to help us make it better? It’s an open community, and we’re looking for your input.

We are VERY interested in hearing from you on how we can make the system better. If you have ideas, thoughts, comments – tell us. Leave them in the comments here, on the Ushahidi blog, or on the Ushahidi contact form.

This is a test of the system, albeit a very difficult one, but it will affect the way the software is changed, modified and upgraded in the next version. What we get right here, we can make work for you in your area when you need it.

How SMS messages route through Ushahidi

This simplified graphic was created to show how SMS messaging moves through the Ushahidi system – it’s a 2-way communication cycle.



SMS Reporting Through Ushahidi, originally uploaded by whiteafrican.
  1. An SMS gets sent to a local number
  2. It passes through FrontlineSMS
  3. This syncs with Ushahidi
  4. The message shows up on Ushahidi
  5. Admins can decide to send a message back to the original sender

We use FrontlineSMS so that we can provide local numbers in areas where the larger SMS gateways don’t operate. For instance, if you were to try to run this in Zambia, you’d probably get a UK phone number if you went through Clickatell. However, we do use Clickatell for the messages that we route back to the original sender due to cost savings. They also have a very nice, easy to use API.

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