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.

Broadening the Base of the Startup Pyramid

While in London at the RGS event I spoke about a different way that I’ve been trying to explain the startup and successful ecosystem needed in places like Africa. Specifically, in the major technology hubs for the continent, these are cities; Nairobi, Jo’burg, Accra, Lagos and Cairo. There seems to be enough funding available for SMEs. How do we get more of them?

It goes something like this.

We have a few good success stories in any one of these cities. There are a handful of great tech companies and organizations that have “made it”. This can be seen as a success in innovation or in business (or in both). Everyone wants to be at the tip of this, and these are the examples we hear of at international conferences and read about in the media.

In the middle we have everyone else, the guys who are still slugging away. They have some clients and revenue streams, but they’re not at the top (yet).

At the bottom, that’s what we deal with in places like the iHub and m:lab. These are those scrappy startups that might or might not have any right being in the place. They’re risky, probably don’t have a solid business model yet, and only a few of them will graduate into the SME space above them.

What to do?

To make the tip of the pyramid bigger, to have more success stories in the tech space, there is only one option: you have to make the base of the pyramid broader.

If your job is to see more innovative new tech companies come out of Africa, the recipe is quite simple:

  • Invest seed funds into local tech entrepreneurs.

(that’s my only bullet point, it’s that simple)

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.)

IxDA and Designers as Explorers

I get culture shock every once in a while, and it’s not the normal type where you’re coming to a new country and everything is completely different than your own country. This is more subtle, I’m at a conference with a lot of people who look and sound like me, but when you actually listen to their conversation you realize that they define themselves and the world in a way just slightly different than you do. That’s what happened to me over the last 3 days here in Boulder, Colorado at the IxDA 2011 – the big Interaction Design Association annual conference. I’m surrounded by 600+ designers, people who think deeply about why you and I do things, and ways to make us do it better, differently or for more money.

Sketch by @AlainaRachelle

Africa’s Digital Design Constraints

I was fortunate enough to meet Jon Kolko, one of the organizers, at PopTech a couple years ago, leading to this invite. My role was to talk as a practitioner, and I covered everything from AfriGadget to Maker Faire Africa and Ushahidi. I then delved into the constraints around design and building in the African tech space, by breaking down the three main areas that I see:

  • Bandwidth
  • Mobiles
  • Culture

Specifically, I covered how bandwidth has made it difficult for people to create new sites and services, but more importantly, how the uptake of those is limited by consumer use of the internet due to costs and speeds. This is changing though, as tracked and evidenced by the lowering data costs and increased bandwidth being piped into the continent each year.

I also covered the swiftly blurring lines between Mobile and web. How due to the fact that mobiles are the primary device for Africans and usually the first device that people have a meaningful interaction with the internet on, is creating a different type of user. How the entrepreneurs in Africa’s web space are thinking of it from a mobile context and how they build services to address their audience. Here I got into the argument of diffusion of internet penetration via the big international players like Facebook and Google through mobiles, which then open up infrastructure and cultural use making it more accessible to local startups.

Finally, I talked about culture. How this culture of mobile first plays out. Where the phone number trumps the email address on user signup, and where transactions happen due to that norm. It’s here that I also got to bring up one of my favorite people, Jepchumba, the creator of African Digital Art. She is creating a community, and a movement, to get African designers talking to each other and showcasing their work to the world – breaking down the stereotypes and building up new personalities across the continent.

Jepchumba helped me come up with some of the content behind my talk due to running her African web design survey last week (it’s still open). There’s a lot of information in that survey, much of which is still being gathered. As an example though, is this chart showing the percentage of African web designers who are self-taught as opposed to having a formal education. I wonder if this is normal globally?

Designers as Explorers

Getting back to my starting point. Sometimes this culture shock leads to great conversations, and it allows me to see the world that I live and work in a slightly different way.

Erin Moore is a designer and a storyteller, usually through video and blogging (see her newest project on Kickstarter). She introduced me to this terminology of “designers as explorers” – something that might be very apparent to the IxD field, but foreign to me. It’s a phrase that fits. Where we see designers as a new generation of what we thought of as National Geographic explorers a century ago. They’re best embodied by the Jan Chipchases of the world, who spend a great deal of time watching, listening and understanding how design interactions work, and then translating those discoveries to the rest of the world.

It fits because I have a hard time with a lot of the well-intentioned design community thinking that they can parachute into places like Africa, usually with a solution already in mind, and change the world. There is a place for designers in Africa, but the greatest value lies in recognizing the expertise at the local level, the inventiveness and ingenuity already there, and rubbing shoulders with them in a way that both gain value and maybe even build something new.

Ana Domb is another of the unique people that I met here at IxDA, she’s studied at MIT and has a good steeping in both digital technology, mixed with a focus on media and understanding fans (the people kind). It was this background that took her to Brazil (she’s Chilean) to study Technobregas – a crazy hodgepodge of fans, artists, sponsors and DJs all banding together to create their own music reality, outside of the traditional music industry’s grasp. It takes someone with a distinct design focus and understanding of how social interactions happen to be able to translate that to someone like me (paper here).

We need to see more of this. Where American designers do parachute in, but not as problem solvers, instead as explorers. Where their expertise rubs off on those they meet, and those they meet rub off on them. Both benefit. Equally, we need to see more African designers going abroad and using their expertise in shaping the way the Western world uses technology and understands community. Design interactions go both ways.

Pay Attention to the Mobile Web

In 2008 we saw the scales begin to tip with imports of data enabled phones being larger than that of non-data enabled phones.
In 2009 we saw the undersea cables hit East and Southern Africa in a big way.
In 2010 we saw the mobile operators get serious about data availability and cost packaging for everyday Africans.

2011 is upon us, and with it brings a new type of data-enabled mobile user in Africa. It also brings the mobile web to center stage.

Mobile web content has been defined as any internet-connected or browser-based access to the internet and as digital content connected to a database that passes through a handheld device connected to a wireless network.

Simply put, the mobile web is the same data that the web layer brings to you on a computer, just now on your phone.

The mobile phone is the most ubiquitous instrument there is in the market. Usage is no longer limited to sending and receiving calls and texts, especially with the increase of data enabled phones, increased bandwidth availability and decreasing data costs. The convenience in terms of use-anywhere-anytime has made access to mobile web content easier, accelerated by dropping rates of mobile handsets and data.

What does it look like?

Here are a couple of examples:

  • Consumer content such as movie times and restaurant reviews, such as Flix and EatOut.
  • Consumer focused transaction sites and classifieds like Dealfish and Pigia.me.
  • Content, such as news, blogs and aggregators like Afrigator.
  • Business information for consumers and businesses, such as Mocality.
  • Mobile-specific communities, such as Motribe, Facebook and Twitter.
  • The ability to pay via mobile payment methods or credit cards, brought to you by mobile payment aggregators like PesaPal.
  • Advertising done by the likes of InMobi and AdMob.

You can see that it doesn’t look all that different from it’s purely web-based counterparts. It’s the same data, just more accessible on your phone.

There are strong plays to be made in all of these fields, as there are few leaders in any country, much yet regionally… yet. The reason for that is we’re just on the front end of this sea change, so even the leaders only have a very small slice of the pie.

While there will always be a place for client-focused mobile applications (Android, iPhone, Ovi, etc.), there is just too much friction there to scale. Friction for the developers who build the applications, and friction for the users who need the “right” phone to access the apps.

For more brain food on this topic, I suggest reading Fred Wilson’s post, Counternotions and alternate thoughts from Diogenex.

Kenya’s Groupon Clones: Rupu and Zetu

Groupon has been a massive success in the US, it’s a deal-of-the-day site, with projected revenue of $500m in just it’s second year. It uses the framework of “collective buying”, which means that if enough people sign up for the deal, then it’s on. If not enough people sign up, then it’s off. Revenue is shared per deal, Groupon only wins if the company doing the deal wins. Of course, this has caught the attention of savvy business people in Africa.

Rupu

Rupu is launching today. The word comes from the term “marupurupu“, which is a freebie, something small handed out in the employer-to-employee relationship (could be considered a bonus). Munyutu Waigi is the business man behind the operation, and it was interesting to note that it was built out by Charles Kithika and Joshua Musau – all three members of the iHub.

Rupu uses Jambopay, which handles local mobile payment options Mpesa and Zap, as well as Visa.

Here’s their video on how it works:

Zetu

Zetu launched about a month ago and they’ve had a few more deals under their belt – everything from manicures to movies. “Zetu” means “our” in Swahili, and it’s playing to the collective action part of the deal.

“Zetu negotiates huge discounts on popular local goods, services and cultural events. Then we offer the deals to thousands of subscribers in a free daily email. The deals are activated only when a minimum number of people agree to buy. So our subscribers get a great deal and the business gets a ton of new customers.”

Zetu uses iPay, which allows you to pay via your mobile with Mpesa, Zap and Yu-Cash.

Thoughts

I’m not sure if Kenya is a big enough market for multiple services like this. I believe it will come down to which of them can get past the middle and upper class customers and get to the average-income customer. The deals are definitely within the right price range, but I’m wondering if the distribution medium works. Should there be better mobile integration?

Each of the sites are also quite new, which means that there are a few rough edges that need to be worked out over the coming months. Most of the issues stem around user interaction, and making it a very easy and friendly transaction.

Collective discount/buying sites take a lot of business-side deal making, as well as the ability to garner a lot of people to follow and push the deals that they like to their friends. Time will tell which of these companies has the business chops to keep the site going and make deals happen that bring the masses of consumers needed to make it successful.

Finally, while there’s nothing wrong with copying a successful business model, the Rupu site is a little too much of direct knock off of Groupon – the colors, logo layout and site look way to close. They took the “clone” part a little to seriously… At least Zetu has a different feel to it and gets points for originality.

Quick Hits Around African Tech

Africa’s mobile industry needs to re-invent itself to meet tomorrow’s challenges
Another great zinger from Russell Southwood’s Balancing Act on the state of the mobile industry across Africa and what needs to change.

“Furthermore, although the shift to data puts a spring in the step of most mobile executives, the shift to an interest in services and apps has the potential to marginalise them as “dumb pipe” operators. The new generation of OS operators (Blackberry, iPhone, Android and others) are offering services and apps in a way that the mobile operators failed to do.”

Desert discs: How mobile phones are at the root of Saharan music.
Christopher Kirkley went to Mali to make field recordings, but returned with a mixtape of music taken from Saharan Sim cards.

African Facebook stats, by Country:

“Only 1.7% of Africans are on Facebook, but since there is only 10.9% Internet penetration, we see that 15.9% of African Internet users are on Facebook.”

Kenyan Internet users woo businesses to Twitter and Facebook

“According to the research, Kenya is ahead of its peers in East Africa in social networking with an average consumer spending atleast 6.5 hours per week, followed by Tanzania — 1.6 hours per week — and Uganda 1.5 hours per week.”

Reflections with Michael Joseph in his last week as CEO of Safaricom:
(Video 1, Video 2)

Reflections with Michael Joseph from Al Kags on Vimeo.

Wrong model. Wrong place.
Ken Banks discusses the challenges of normal business models in the ICT4D and M4D space.

The Future of Mobile in Africa:
A great deck by Rudy de Waele, from his talk at Mobile Web Africa 2010.

Russell Southwood at the iHub

I consider Russell Southwood to be the most well-connected person in the African tech scene, he also happens to have one of the best macro view of what’s going on across the continent in the established tech and media worlds. For a taste of his work, read his article, “Africa’s mobile market will go open access – it’s not if but when and how it all work out“.

On Friday he came to the iHub in Nairobi where he took 2 hours to have a fireside chat with local web and mobile technologist on “The Future of Kenya: what needs to happen for local services and apps to succeed.”

“Russell Southwood looks at the kinds of changes that will happen in Kenya over the next ten years, how the barriers to change might be broken down and the relationship between the ICT business and the broader economy and society. He sets out to try and understand what will produce the success factors for the growth of ICT services and apps businesses across Africa and why Kenya has a key role to play. From these broad arguments, he then focuses down on the needs and type of customers services and apps companies can potentially serve.”

Russells relaxed and intimate chat with the community is going to serve as the first of many new fireside chats at the iHub with Africa’s “big thinkers” and top tech CEOs.

Africa: The 2nd Safest Continent to Surf the Web

Here’s an interesting study by AVG on internet security, asking “Where in the World are you most likely to be hit by a malicious computer attack or virus?”.

Apparently, and surprisingly to me, the answer is “not Africa” or South America.

“During the last week of July, AVG researchers compiled a list of virus and malware attacks by country picked up by AVG security software. This means we have compiled data from over 127 million computers in 144 countries to determine the incidence rates of virus attacks by country.”

Dirk Singer, of AVG sent over the list of African countries, here they are country-by-country. As you can see, sub-saharan Africa is compatively ‘safe’ compared to other areas of the World. Your chances of being attacked while surfing the web in each country are:

North Africa

  • Egypt 1 in 62.4
  • Algeria 1 in 86.9
  • Libya 1 in 87.7
  • Mauritania 1 in 92.4
  • Tunisia 1 in 110.7
  • Morocco 1 in 112.1

Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Mali 1 in 49.9
  • Sudan 1 in 53.9
  • Nigeria 1 in 67.5
  • Benin 1 in 76.6
  • Ghana 1 in 99.4
  • Ivory Coast 1 in 101.5
  • Gabon 1 in 113.1
  • Angola 1 in 129.7
  • Botswana 1 in 134.4
  • Ethiopia 1 in 135.8
  • Senegal 1 in 140.6
  • Uganda 1 in 153.6
  • Liberia 1 in 153.8
  • Burkina Faso 1 in 163.4
  • South Africa 1 in 172.3
  • Tanzania 1 in 180.6
  • Kenya 1 in 216.1
  • Zambia 1 in 262.2
  • Mozambique 1 in 263.8
  • Zambia 1 in 262.2
  • Namibia 1 in 353.1
  • Togo 1 in 359.4
  • Niger 1 in 442.0
  • Sierra Leone 1 in 696.0

Keep in mind, this was over one week and it also doesn’t point directly towards where the attacks are originating from. Interesting data though, and not what I would have expected to see.