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.

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.]

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.

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.