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Tag: vodafone

Thoughts on Africa’s Mobile Operators and Disruption

Generally speaking, mobile network operators (MNOs) were highly disruptive in the 90’s, but have continued to decrease in this over the last decade. Operators are no longer the offensive, attacking force of yesteryear, instead they’re putting up barriers and defensive walls trying to protect what they have and hide.

Instead, the disruption comes from the open web. Whenever the operators put up a blocker to what users want, usually in the form of price or access to their infrastructure, the web finds a way of displacing them. Examples abound in location based services, text messaging, video and photos.

There’s a reason operator revenue is shifting away from voice and SMS towards data. The products that got the operators here are receding in relative value. The user wants what’s available in the open web, and that’s just not found, or being provided, by the operators.

So, what is an MNO to do?

Change. Disrupt someone else. Innovate.

One of the biggest disruptors, even in this decade of MNO mediocrity, has been Safaricom – the 800lbs gorilla in my own back yard. They’ve invested in new technology, products and business models like few others, and are reaping the rewards of those strategic moves.

Do I like having a monopoly player in my market? No.
Do I feel bad for the other MNOs (Orange, Airtel and Yu) who are crying now? No, they did this to themselves.

Let’s dig into their golden-child, Mpesa, the mobile peer-to-peer payment system that’s did $3.15 billion in transaction in just the last 6 months(!). How do you know they succeeded in innovating? Well, the easy answer is looking at their profitability and user tie-in that they get from Mpesa. Look more closely and you’ll notice the other signal, all of the bank lobbies in other countries have put up huge walls, blockading an aberration like Mpesa from having sway in their country.

[Sidebar: A warning to everyone who wants to see innovation in their country. Over regulation of telecommunications and banking strangles it. South Africa and Nigeria are cases in point.]

So, Mpesa sounds to everyone like a huge success story. It is, and it’s not. What we think of as an amazing disruptive product is really only halfway up the mountain. There are too many corks being popped while money lies sitting on the table. This stems from 2 main things, which seem to be an issue of Vodafone primarily, since they own the IP for Mpesa and own a 40% stake in Safaricom:

  1. The lack of leadership by Vodafone to NOT open up an API that other businesses could build on and increase usage. They’ve stifled innovation on their own product.
  2. Their lack of vision in the global payments space. Their shortsideness in not spinning out Mpesa as its own company to take on Visa and Mastercard directly. This was one of the few products and business models that could do that.

More MNO Innovation

So, Safaricom might be stifling its own product, but they’re still not short on disruptive features and products. They do fall prey to bureaucracy and political infighting, but they’re also one of the most aggressive MNOs globally, always trying new things. Three more examples:

  • Creativity in 3g data pricing and accessibility down market.
  • First-movers in 3g and exceptional data coverage countrywide.
  • Okoa Jihazi, their product that gives a loan of credit from the operator to users who are tight on cash.

Other examples of MNOs who are innovating in Africa are:

Airtel Madagascar working with Movirtu with their new Cloud Phone, a way for people to share a phone, but keep the SIM card in the cloud.

MTN, testing Mobile Phonebook by FeePerfect out of Cameroon, a product that puts a phone book into everyone’s phone.

Small + Big

Clearly, innovative products can come to market through MNOs. What’s the common denominator on these products though? Most of them came from small companies and were then incorporated into the MNO.

Ideas come from outside, they come from the edge. Scale comes from inside, from the massive infrastructure provided by the MNO. They have to work together to succeed.

I work with, and talk to, hundreds of entrepreneurs. They have ideas, prototypes and products that just might be what the users want. They lack the access to the infrastructure to roll it out.

As an MNO, you boost your chances of success in this increasingly chaotic space by not walling everything off, but by opening it up.

Mobile Web Content in East Africa [Report]

Vodafone recently concluded a policy paper on “Broadband in Emerging Markets”, also titled “Making Broadband Accessible for All“.

The position and reason for this paper is best summarized below.

“The success story of mobiles in the developing world is well known. Yet in the case of extending data services in emerging markets, there is a real danger of some serious policy mistakes. As in developed markets, broadband strategies in developing countries have tended to focus on investment in fibre. This is too simplistic. This focus on fibre may miss an opportunity for a transformational change built on the capabilities and in particular accessibility of mobile broadband. The early evidence suggests that mobile internet is spreading as quickly, in some developing countries, as mobile telephony did originally.”

Traditional definitions of broadband have a narrow focus on bandwidth and speed. This paper uses a wider definition, as broadband policy needs to consider the entire ‘eco-system’ of internet and data services from both a demand and supply-side perspective.

Content Sections

  • Mobile Internet usage and demand in Kenya: The experience of early adopters (David Souter)
  • The potential of mobile web content in East Africa (Erik Hersman)
  • Spectrum policy and competition in mobile services (Thomas W. Hazlett)
  • Rethinking mobile regulation for the data age (Martin Cave & Windfred Mfuh)
  • Building next generation bradband networks in emerging markets (Luk van Hooft)

The Diffusion of the Mobile Web Across East Africa

Mobile web content is growing at an astounding rate. It rose 2.6-fold in 2010, nearly tripling for the third year in a row. Official Kenyan industry statistics show that mobile internet subscribers will grow by approximately 843% for the 12 months to September 2011.

What I like about papers like this is that I get to use words that normal people don’t use. I make a case for international content and platforms as “drivers of diffusion” of data across East Africa. That simply means that these platforms and content are helping to spread the use of data more deeply into the region, and allowing local players to get in at lower costs.

International web content is by far the most widely available and used in East Africa. This is in large part due to the ease of finding and disseminating this content, as well as its normalized licensing schemes and reliability. International platforms also carry a majority of the content that is currently being viewed on mobile phones. The following are the types of content that are most important to consumers in East Africa, according to our interviewees:

  1. International entertainment news (sports, gossip, lifestyle)
  2. Local news
  3. Breaking news
  4. Facebook (and to a lesser extent other social network tools such as Mig33, Mxit and Twitter)
  5. Jobs
  6. Dating (chat and relationships)
  7. Religion
  8. Local video/media

The reasons are that international platforms, such as Facebook, Yahoo!, BBC, CNN, Google and Wikipedia, have already been tailored to work on the most widely used data- enabled handsets. This contrasts with local content providers, many of whom have yet to tailor their websites for mobile access. In addition, local content less available at present, not as easy to license, and often cannot be reliably guaranteed as a long-term source.

Local Content

I interviewed a number of executives from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. There was a clear belief that while international content, increasingly localized for the market, is currently king, local content has the greatest growth potential because it is more highly valued by consumers.

While local content developers lack scale they have advantages that the global platforms do not. For one, they understand the local tastes and culture so customers value their content more. The consumer benefits of truly local content and platforms could be large.

The Government Role

There is still a lack of concrete government policies for government services or content to be made available or accessible via the mobile in any country in East Africa, even though this is the primary channel by which citizens could access services online. There is a solid case to be made for mGovernment, instead of just eGovernment.

To underline this, the most popular Kenyan Government website (Kenyan Revenue Authority) is shown as seen on a PC screen, a smartphone (HTC Desire) and a typical 2G internet enabled handset (Vodafone 350). The website is most clear and easily accessible via a PC interface (and consumer interaction primarily is through downloadable pdf files). There are no browsing problems when accessing through a PC-based browser. The KRA website is also accessible via the native Android browser in the HTC Desire Smartphone. The HTC Desire also allows downloading and viewing of pdf files. However, the native browser on the Vodafone 350 (a basic 2G EDGE handset) does not present the KRA website in a usable format. As can be seen, the website is badly rendered and quite impossible to navigate.

Possible government services to be made available via mobile web:

  • Paying bills
  • Service delivery questions and concerns
  • Taxes – access, information and filing
  • Health – access or appointments, information
  • Public job search

An argument can be made that m-government services would have a greater impact if the focus were on supplying tools for small businesses to interact with government, rather than only making services available for citizens in general. By removing the barriers to entry for small businesses, the government would be providing a service that increased usage, decreased business costs and had a potential tax revenue increasing effect due to filing and paying on time.

Summary

East Africans are accessing the web primarily through their mobile phones. The new medium is enticing them online with the new services and content provided through a new medium. Broadband penetration rates are low enough in this region that we are not yet seeing the displacement of newspapers, radio and TV seen in other, more connected regions of the world. However, as with all network technologies, there is the potential for reaching a tipping point. This will depend on the provision of enough mobile web content that is valued by East African consumers.

The content driving East African users online is currently largely provided by international news and content sources, such as Yahoo! and the BBC, and also by global internet platforms, such as Facebook and Google’s Gmail. Even taking into account the decreasing data costs, falling data-enabled handset costs, and the increased availability of broadband, there would not be enough traction locally to get to the critical point if the content were not available.

These international content sources and global web platforms generate demand, and therefore allow the mobile network operators to decrease costs as more users come online. International content is thus providing a pathway for local content creators. While local content is in high demand and there is a rapidly increasing user base, the mobile web content space in East Africa is in its early stages, and there are no
clear leading content providers. At present the key trend is the provision of increasingly localized content by the leading global companies.

This paper has identified two important barriers to the further diffusion of mobile internet usage across East Africa: lack of m-government policies; and, more important, an absence of charging mechanisms which share the cost of mobile internet access between end-users and content providers. If governments embraced mobile-based provision of services and provided access free of usage charges to end-users (sharing the efficiency gains through payments to network operators), the potential impact on internet access could be dramatic. The challenge for governments and local developers of mobile web content is to utilize their local cultural understanding and ability to maneuver quickly to make their content more relevant and affordable to end-users.

(Note: This is summary of my section. Download the full 2Mb PDF report to read the section in its entirety, and to read the other 4 sections of the paper.)

Michael Joseph and Mpesa: A Missed Opportunity

Michael Joseph was the CEO of Safaricom, taking the mobile operator from 5 employees to dominating the Kenyan mobile operator market with over 80% market share in his 10 years at the helm.  Regardless of your personal feelings on the man, you have to admire the tenacious approach he took growing the business, and his willingness to invest in his company’s future, thereby decimating his (often inept) competition. 

Possibly MJ’s (how he’s known in local Kenyan parlance) greatest business move was also a measured risk, that is being the company to take a software created by parent Vodafone Group and push it into the market.  That software: Mpesa, the most successful mobile payments system in the world.  Safaricom has more transactions each day than Western Union does globally in a year.  Yes, it’s that impressive.

When Michael Joseph stepped down in October of last year, he had a blank slate.  Only he knows just how many opportunities were out there, but I’m guessing there were many.  He just announced his next move, and that is to join the World Bank and “spearhead expansion of mobile money transfers” in their member states.  

“The first fellow under the programme, Michael Joseph, will advise the Bank and governments on spreading the use of mobile phone banking, drawing on his knowledge and experience at the helm of Kenya’s largest telecommunications service provider,”

All of the business acumen and cache that MJ has built up is going to go towards being the World Bank’s ambassador for mobile money.  Meanwhile, he is maintaining a role at Vodafone as a director, where he serves as an advisor on the expansion of Mpesa to other African countries.  That’s to be expected, as he’s one of their greatest success stories to date.  Both of these, though good, seem like a waste of potential, and I’ll explain why.  

A missed opportunity

No one in the world holds as much knowledge on how to deploy a mobile money system, nor how to grow it and operate it as Michael Joseph.  However, all of his success was penned in by the fact that Safaricom only serves Kenya, he could never grow it outside of the country in a meaningful way.  Forays into Tanzania and South Africa have happened, but aren’t seeing nearly the success as in Kenya.

Vodafone knows they’re sitting on a goose that lays golden eggs, yet it’s only laid a single egg – their problem is that they’ve not figured out how to duplicate its success.  

Instead of trying to hold on to Mpesa, they should spin it out as its own entity, put Michael Joseph at its head and let it take on the world (not just Africa).  

There’s a few good reasons for this move:  

First, Vodafone is too big and slow to do this internally, it’s like all of the services and startups eaten up by other large companies that die due to not being within an ecosystem that has an entrepreneurial bent, but instead are sucked down by bureaucracy.  

Second, no one else could take this brand global and have the ability to stand toe-to-toe with other operator peers around the world like MJ could.  It needs that type of personality if it’s to do what’s next.

Third, there aren’t many opportunities that crop up that allows you to take on massively profitable and embedded incumbents and win.  In this case, that’s all of the other payment methods, including credit cards and internet payment platforms.  Mpesa could become the defacto mobile payment system for the world – displacing other methods.

To be honest, I thought this was the obvious play when Michael’s time at Safaricom came to an end – for all of the players: Vodafone and MJ himself.  I kept thinking that surely there was a reason for them not moving on it, that it might have something to do with timing.  Instead, it looks like the big IP owner, Vodafone, is unwilling to take Mpesa big – and it looks like the reason why is that they’re unwilling to let go of control (now ownership). 

That’s how it looks from where I sit, if you know more, add it below.

A Location Based Mobile Adventure Game

This is brilliant. Legends of Echo is a new free Java mobile phone, massively multiplayer role playing, location based game put out by the people behind the Grid in South Africa (Vodacom).

“In the game, the Echo is a parallel virtual universe based on the South African map. Instead of cities and skyscrapers, however, players will find rolling green fields, rocky outcrops and valleys to explore and establish their base.”

The best overviews are found on the News24 Games blog, in an interview with co-creator Nic Haralambous, and on Nic’s own blog (you’ll also want to read what Vincent Maher had to say about it). From what I can tell, without having played it yet, is that it’s a turn-based card-type game. You find loot, do battle and win more loot. Leveling is there, but it’s not as large of a component as expected.

“There are lots of different kinds of weapons, powers and items that you can pick up by moving around the country from city to city, province to province. Each one gives you a slightly different edge in battle.”

On top of the normal game elements, and an indicator that makes me believe that LoE might be better thought-out than most other games, is the fact that they built an economic system into the game from the beginning. Nic states, “There is a currency model built in to the game that allows players to spend airtime in the Echo Marketplace.” That’s a big deal, and it’s not easy to pull off if done right.

Legend of Echo’s graphics and visual appeal can’t be understated. They spent a good deal of time to make this game look and feel like a World of Warcraft competitor, and it shows. Visually it reminds me of Arcanum meets World of Warcraft.

Specs

You’ll need to have a high-end Nokia or Sony Ericsson to play Legends of Echo. I’ve got an old Nokia N95 sitting around somewhere, so my plan is to dust that off and give the game a run when I’m in Cape Town next month.

It also appears that you actually have to be in South Africa to play it, but I’m checking with Nic to see if anyone living in a country that The Grid operates in can play it as well. This is doubtful, as it’s based also on the Afrigis system, which is fairly Southern-Africa specific.

The game is available for free as a Java download to cellphones. To play Legends of Echo, SMS ‘ECHO’ to 33313 (50c/SMS) or visit http://www.legendsofecho.mobi

A teaser video:

Legends of Echo from Cow Africa on Vimeo.

Thoughts from a gamer…

  • It seems that a web-based Java version of this game would be successful, if only because it would allow you to play on whichever device you have handy. Are there any plans for that?
  • How much will LoE go the direction of Foursquare where they really use the location based systems to drive competition and increased game play?
  • I’m impressed that they took the time to create a strong virtual economy.
  • Will a real-world economy of people using real money to buy and sell goods develop online, as we’ve seen in other successful MMO games?
  • You’re supposedly able to “Build special items with unique abilities”. I’d like to know more about the crafting system, as that can be one of the best ways to deepen interaction and make a game more unique.

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