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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Category: Web Stuff (page 3 of 45)

How Safaricom Steals Your Internet Bundle

99% of Kenya’s 6.5m internet users access it via mobile, of which Safaricom owns 77% marketshare.

In Kenya, when you buy a 1.5Gb internet bundle from Safaricom you pay 1000ksh (~$12). You’ve paid for the data, and there is no additional cost to Safaricom if you were to use that data today or a year from now. The whole concept of data bundle expiry is ridiculous, as noted by Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore when he visited the iHub:

“When you go into a petrol station and fill up your car, does the owner of the petrol station tell you to bring it back on Wednesday to take back what’s left in the vehicle? Of course not. So I ask, why the hell are we doing that?”

Bob goes on to say that he isn’t going to be an apologist for this practice, that there is a problem with leaving the data there ad infinitum. That 60 days is probably too short and that Safaricom does need to change how they handle this.

  • Until recently they just held your data hostage. If your data expired, you could recharge with just a few shillings of data, this would re-trigger your “old” data that was past the expiration, and have that available to you again.
  • Today, it is “data gone, money stolen” after expiration. They cut you off if you haven’t used all of your internet bundle in the nominal 7-90 days, no matter how much is remaining.

I brought this up with Bob Collymore, and his chief executives when they visited the iHub earlier this year (see video), at which point he admitted that it was indeed a dubious practice that would be changed to something much more open to users. You’ll see what Bob says at the 1:17 mark in the video below.

Here Bob is on video speaking to this point (I’ve saved the link to go to the right point in the video):

The other day I caught a Tweet from Sunny Bindra about some surprising changes:

Safaricom is actually very responsive on Twitter, probably the best big company on social media in the Kenya. They followed up with Sunny with this:

So, Safaricom didn’t broadcast this significant change in the way data bundles are handled broadly. Apparently, “publicized on our website” means quietly posting a PDF somewhere in the morass that is their website to notify the data using public of the changes.

If you follow the links to the PDF, you’ll find the following:

What is the Validity period?
This is the time frame that you have to use the bundles, when this period elapses it means that any remaining bundles will have expired and will not be available for use.

(Note: there is conflicting information on how long bundles will last, you can only find out by topping up a bundle. I did this for 1.5Gb and found that it’ll last 80 days, not the 30 that they say in the PDF. I don’t know if it’s more/less time for other bundle amounts.)

It’s in Safaricom’s best interest for you to keep buying more data, over and over, even if you haven’t used it. It costs them nothing to let you use it over a longer period of time, or to keep recharging it.

In Conclusion

I’m disappointed with Safaricom, especially after Bob Collymore came to the iHub and said he was going to fix this, not break it further.

This is an outright fleecing that the Safaricom team should be questioned on. In a country where they are the monopoly player on the primary source for people to access the internet, this makes them appear like a bad actor.

Basically, we’ve gone from a bad system that was promised to be made better, but which had a corrective option, to a worse system that has no option.

Other Safaricom Data Miscellany

While I’m at it, let’s go ahead and talk about a few other ways that the data service that Safaricom raises the bar for bonehead usability: buying data bundles themselves.

Case 1:
You used to be able to send airtime to a SIM card on your Safaricom modem. Then, using the inbuilt Safaricom Broadband app, send an SMS to 450 with the amount of the bundle that you wanted to buy, now 450 only seems to work for checking your balance.

With the new service updated in the aforementioned PDF you can now only use the USSD code to update it.

Solution now?
Take the SIM card out of your modem, load it in your phone and do the USSD code. Once confirmation is received, switch that SIM card back to the modem.

Yes, that’s correct. Instead of being using the software that comes native with your modem, you now have to use a phone to update your bundles. Why would you change your system to not work with everything that people use? I’m quite curious actually. I can’t understand this decision from a either the business or the product side at all.

Case 2:
Safaricom wanted to make it easier for people with modems, iPads, Android tablets and smartphones to be able to update their bundle (good idea). They created http://portal.safaricom.com/bundles for this purpose. Let’s say you’re out of data, you have no credit on your phone. How do you get to this page?

Solution?
There are none. You’re stuck because this page isn’t zero-rated. This is mind-boggling in it’s oversight. I have no data, therefore I cannot go to your page to load more data. Seriously… who is the genius that thought this up? Or, probably more accurately, what form of bureaucracy is in place that allows this mediocrity to persist?

Further, if you’re Safaricom who controls 77% of the consumer internet access in Kenya, why wouldn’t you zero-rate your whole Safaricom.com domain and make it free for anyone to surf, even if they don’t have a single shilling on their phone?

[As a resource, here is the latest quarterly Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) PDF report on the tech scene in Kenya.]

Quick Hits Around African Tech (May 2012)

This last month has kept me too off-kilter to get a good blog post up. However, there have been some very interesting happenings around the continent, here are the ones that caught my attention:

Pivot East

East Africa’s mobile startup pitching competition is just a month away. We announced the top 50 a few weeks ago, and now the 25 Finalists are named as well. Don’t miss this event, June 5 & 6th at the Ole Sereni hotel in Nairobi.

Google Releases “Insights Africa”

This truly deserves a blog post of its own… Google spent a lot of money and time gathering information from over 13,000 people across 6 African countries (Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda) to determine why, and how, people use the internet. This data is all openly available, with an outstanding visualization tool to see what the information really means, and compare it, at InsightsAfrica.com. My chart below is just one example, showing how people access the internet across these 6 countries:

Donors prioritized “industrial policy” in Asia, but “social sectors” in Africa. Why?

Kariobangi writes a compelling blog post on the difference between the aid that was prioritized for Asia versus that for Africa.

TeleRivet: An Android SMS gateway

Similar what Ushahidi offers at SMSsync, TeleRivet is a tool that allows you to use your Android phone as an SMS gateway. It’s more robust, offers an API, and makes it easy for people to get started on SMS and USSD apps. Mbwana Alliy writes up a blog post on why this is important, and the business prospects involved in utilizing this type of service.

WEF: The Global Information Technology Report 2012

The World Economic Forum’s annual report on IT has some good information on emerging markets. You can read it online here. Here’s the video:

ForgetMeNot and the rise of Africa’s Smart(er) Phones

BizCommunity has a good article on ForgetMeNot’s Message Optimizer service’s growth on the continent. This service delivers internet content to users who can only access that information via SMS. Here’s how it works:

“First, a mobile phone subscriber sends an SMS to a given short code. The message is received in the mobile company’s message centre, which then forwards to ForgetMeNot Africa’s internet servers. The servers process, route and deliver the message to the subscriber, who can then respond.”

Kenya study, impact of venture capital on small and medium sized enterprise

VC4Africa reviews a report on VC’s in Kenya. This isn’t just tech, but it is interesting and surfaces some great information. [PDF Download]

“The minimum profit before use of venture capital was Ksh 34, 866. Upon use of venture capital, the minimum profit increased to Ksh 600, 000. This shows an increase in minimum profit of 94%. The maximum profit respondents reported before use of venture capital was Ksh 38, 567,951 which increased to Ksh 62, 864,152 an increase of 63%. The average profit also increased by 69% (from Ksh 7,204,653 to Ksh 12, 202,775)”

Mpesa, a 5 Year Infographic

Just how big has Mpesa become? Take a look [PDF version].

Jason Njoku, Funding and Nigerian Movies Online

In Nigeria, Jason Njoku is at it again, raising $8m from Tiger Global Management, a US-based PE and hedge fund. Here’s an interview with him on Forbes. Iroko Partners is the world’s largest digital distributor of Nigerian movies and African music. The firm is YouTube’s biggest partner in Africa, boasting over 152 million views in 2011.

Our Voices Revolutionize the World

[The following is from my Institute of Medicine Talk on communications technologies for violence prevention in Washington DC today. A good background paper to get started on the context of tech in violence prevention is found in this PDF. ]

Something has changed over the last decade.

New technology is lowering barriers. For everyone, and everything. It is disruptive just by existing and by it’s penetration into every corner of the world. We’re talking mobile phones, social media, open data, inexpensive mapping and of course the internet itself.

It can be used just as easily for good as for bad, like any other tool and medium before it. However, the biggest difference in our new technology space, is that what before had at least some gatekeepers, now has few or none.

Inefficiencies in older industries or organizations are areas ripe to be disintermediated in our day of new tools and democratizing of information. Think big media, government, the humanitarian field and even the medical and healthcare industries. Many of these are centralized, top-down information systems which are being forced (or will be forced) to change, or become obsolete and die out in their current form. Not because what they represent is bad, but because how they do it is no longer viable.

Legacy systems and processes were built for a use case that is often decades, if not centuries, old. Internet and mobile phone technology bring new efficiencies and lower barriers. At the very least we can expect new technology to augment what’s there, if it doesn’t displace it entirely.

We’ve see this rippling through the media world for the past few years, large magazines and newspapers are going out of print, major TV networks are struggling. New technology is changing the news paradigm.

We see it in government, from fund raising to how wars are fought, and especially to how a faster moving populace interacts with a slower, archaic and sometimes rotten system that rules them. New technology makes a nimble adversary out of the people that the government is sworn to serve.

We see this in the humanitarian space, where large, slow and ungainly organizations can’t seem to coordinate the resources to meet their mandate, yet raise enough money to keep themselves in business. New technology allows the affected people to self-organize and solve their own problems, and leads us to question why some organizations exist at all.

Let me give you a finite example of this, from my own organization, Ushahidi.

Ushahidi was born out of the post-election violence in 2008. In that first week, a number of us came together as an ad hoc group of volunteers and in 3 days created a website that allowed anyone in the country to send in text messages, emails or web reports on problems happening in their area and we mapped them and put them on a timeline. It was simple, rudimentary even, but it worked.

It worked because people were looking for an outlet, they wanted to let people know what was happening to them.

What we’ve seen since that time is that Ushahidi has proliferated, not because of the technology, but because of the use cases that it makes possible. It is a free and open source platform for gathering and visualizing information and it has been used for everything from disaster response to election monitoring, citizen journalism and community engagement.

There are now over 20,000 deployments of the Ushahidi platform operating in 132 countries. Our goals for Ushahidi are simple; to disrupt the way information flows in the world by providing the best tools for democratizing information with the least barriers to entry.

In the beginning this meant take what took us 3 days to build and make it available to others so they didn’t have to start from scratch. Something that would take them only 3 hours to deploy. Last year we dropped that to 3 minutes with the launch of Crowdmap, our cloud-based version of Ushahidi.

We’ve also created many mobile tools, from an Android-based SMS gateway to customizable iPhone and Android apps.

3 lessons we learned early:

  • We didn’t have the credentials. None of us were humanitarians, we just cared about our home and wanted to do something.
  • We had no funding. It wasn’t until 4 months later that we formed Ushahidi as an organization, and 4 months after that when we received funding. That didn’t stop us from doing something.
  • We had no time. If we had thought long and hard before we built our system, it probably would have been too complicated and wouldn’t have worked. We also might have thought of a more sayable name…

All of the lessons that we’ve learned through our journey are baked into our organizations culture. We question assumptions and we treasure disruption. We’re willing to take risks that leave us open to failure, in our effort to change the way information flows in the world.

There’s a term that I came across last year called “White Space“, and it’s best definition is:

“…where rules are vague, authority is fuzzy, budgets are nonexistent, and strategy is unclear…”

The most innovative ideas come from this white space; internally within organizations, in the startup space and in society in general. At the end of the day, much of the white space definition looks a lot like where I live and work in Africa. And I think it’s why its sometimes easier to come up with innovative solutions there, and why we’re going to see an increasing number of solutions to the problems in the West coming from places that look a lot like Africa.

The best disruptive ideas come from the edge. So, let’s look at the edge, cases from around the globe, for some examples of how technology is being used to make an impact on violence prevention.

  • HarassMap (Ushahidi + FrontlineSMS) – Egypt
  • BullyMapper (FrontlineSMS + Ushahidi) – Australia
  • Human Rights (Ushahidi) – Saudi Arabia by Amnesty Int’l
  • YoungAfrica Live (Internet via mobile) – South Africa
  • YETAM (FrontlineSMS + Ushahidi) – Benin by Plan
  • Apartheid Watch (Ushahidi) – Israel and Palestine
  • Hollaback (Phone cameras and a website) – US, India, Mexico and Argentina
  • PeaceTXT (SMS and trained people) – US
  • Maps4Aid (Ushahidi) – India
  • Take Back the Tech (Ushahidi) – Global

“Across the globe—and without any organizing or mobilization by NGOs or watchdogs—people confronted with threats to their rights are communicating out those experiences, in effect reasserting agency over their own rights protection.” – Amnesty International

Those are all exciting examples, showing what can be done with new technology. Suddenly there are no barriers to entry, anyone can take part, and it doesn’t require that someone have authority to begin. It’s just a matter of figuring out what you want to do and galvanizing a community to take part.

Is technology a panacea? Not at all.

As my friend Clay Shirky says, “The technology only becomes interesting when it is no longer interesting to technologists.”

We use a graphic in Ushahidi to remind users of our tools that the technology is only a small part of any solution. We say that 90% of the work is non-tech related, and can take the form of organizing, outreach, branding, translation, etc.

It’s a reminder to us as well, that we need to focus on creating tools that augment human activity and get out of the way as much as possible. That, in the end, is what makes the earlier examples so interesting; they worked because they used the simple tools available in people’s pockets to interact and bring attention to a much larger population, audience or intermediary.

Just this week a new site was launched, like it’s predecessor in Egypt it’s purpose is to draw attention to the harassment that women get, this time in Ramallah, Palestine. Residents of Ramallah, as well as staff from Palestinian women’s organizations and civil society came together and did something, they built Streetwatch. It was self-organized, it emerged from local needs and tools were found that could suit them.

“They have an opportunity to help themselves and other honest citizens of Ramallah to isolate the problem areas and say no to sexual harassment.”

This is the new story of our time, that:

“Our voices revolutionize the world.” – David Kobia, Ushahidi

Those 5 words. That simple statement.

The revolution is here, you’ve watched it shake industries, rock countries and effect your own community – and what you’re seeing is only the beginning of the massive changes sweeping across the world.

It’s not complicated. It’s the effect of technology democratizing information and changing the way it flows in the world.

It’s simple solutions, by unqualified but driven people, like the communities in Ramallah, Egypt, India and even here in the US, that provide a foundation for the changes that we’re seeing. It’s ordinary people, using simple technology to organize themselves and take care of their own problems.

Your task is to look closely, to understand the basics and then figure out how to use these new tools at your disposal to make a difference. In your case, to specifically prevent violence and help those who have been hurt.

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.

Infographic: Kenya Mobile Subscribers, Penetration & Internet

The research team at the iHub put together some stats on mobile numbers in Kenya. A special nod to Leo Mutuku for gathering it all from so many sources, and to Patrick Munyi for creating this cool visualization of it. Check out the iHub blog post to read the rest.

an infographic on mobile subscribers, penetration and internet in Kenya

Look for more infographics on the other East African countries soon.

MedAfrica Pitches at DEMO

Mbugua Njihia and Steve Mutinda were the overall winners at the Pivot 25 event earlier this year with their MedKenya app, which has since turned into MedAfrica. Their prize was a chance to pitch at DEMO, the big startup pitching event in Silicon Valley. Here’s their team last week giving the pitch.

MedAfrica is just the tip of the iceberg, as we see more startup spaces, pitching events and seed capital entering the continent.

IPO48 Nairobi Startup Finalists 2011

I’m at the final pitches for the 2011 Nairobi IPO48 event that’s been happening non-stop over the last 2 days. This year it’s being held at the iHub, with 12 companies working through ideas, prototypes, business plans and finally an investment for the winner. In total, they’re offering:

  • 25.000€ (3.3m Ksh) in funding after 48 hours
  • Mentorship from serial entrepreneurs and professionals
  • Great media exposure for your startup
  • Find talented people that want to join your startup

If you want a quick rundown of who the 12 finalists are, and what their apps do, check out Afrinnovator’s writeup. You can also watch quick 1-minute videos on each of them on YouTube.

The 2011 Winner: Tusquee Systems with their SchoolSMS app (which also won their category at Pivot25)!

Runners Up Ghafla! and 6ix Degrees will win an additional 15k Euro investment (more on Afrinnovator).

Kenya Startup Events


It’s only 2 months since Pivot25 and now we’re on another startup event with Human IPO back in Nairobi for the second year. The Tandaa $690k startup grants for techies have gone out to 15 companies. We didn’t have any of these events going on. None.

This is important for a number of reasons:

  • Kenyan entrepreneurs are getting experience in pitching their ideas.
  • Techies are finding out the hard truths about themselves as business people, and that technology alone doesn’t make a business.
  • Local and international mentors are giving the entrepreneurs much needed insights and wisdom.
  • Investors and international media are being catered to, they’re getting a chance to see the Nairobi startup scene up close and personal.
  • Design is being taken a little more seriously (though a lot more needs to be done).
  • It brings an angel and early-stage investment mentality to Nairobi that hasn’t really existed before.

In short, we need to continue with local startup competitions. The more people who learn how to think through, build and pitch their ideas, the more likely we are to continue our upward growth in mobile and web innovation. It’s only by a lot of practice, lessons learned and hard knocks that we’ll see more success stories.

The finalists in these competitions represent a small percentage of the people who apply, but don’t make it. It’s a pure numbers game, where we’ll see the 10-15% succeed and most fail. Again, that’s okay, it’s how the startup game works.

We’re only half way up the mountain, and startup competitions are only part of the equation. There’s a lot more work to do if we want to see more success stories. Thus we need the whole technology community in East Africa to continue supporting the events and the people behind them, but also get involved in the startups themselves, whether for mentoring, business or investment.

Africa’s First National Open Data Initiative: Kenya

Today Kenya becomes the first country in Africa to launch a national open data initiative. There have been many people pushing for this, over many months, and it’s been an exciting process to watch unfold. Foremost amongst the drivers on this has been Dr. Bitange Ndemo, the Permanent Secretary of Information and Communications. This is indeed a very proud moment for Kenya, and a leading position to take on the continent.

The Kenya Open Data Initiative (KODI) goes live this morning in a big event that includes President Kibaki, as well as many politicians, government officials and local technologists. The World Bank, who has been instrumental in organizing and helping publish the data is here as well, along with Google, Ushahidi, the iHub community and a large selection of youth.

Data Sets

The data is available online through the Socrata platform, which allows users to view different data at national, county and constituency levels. They can compare different data sets, create maps and other visualizations.

Data sets are categorized into 6 main categories: Education, Energy, Health, Population, Poverty and Water & Sanitation. It includes data from the national census, the ministry of education, ministry of health, CDF projects and many more.

Here’s an example of that data, “county expenditures by administration”:

Mashing up the Data

This all came together rather quickly, starting about 3 weeks ago. The tech community was immediately reached out to, and as the data sets have come online over the last week, we’ve had access to them early in order to show what can be done. Here’s a few samples of that.

The Ushahidi team is taking the census data and overlaying healthcare institution data on top of it into our Huduma site. It’s still very beta, but it shows what can be done in just a few days.

We’ve also built a simple SMS query tool. If you’re in Kenya, send an SMS to 3018 with the name of your county or constituency and you’ll get back an SMS with the demographics and MP of that location.

The Virtual Kenya team has built an app that shows which MPs refuse to pay taxes.

The iHub community has done some things around tracking CDF fund usage in the constituencies. There’s a mobile app called “Msema Kweli” that allows you to find CDF projects near you, and for you to add pictures of them.

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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.)

The Google Global Cache hits Kenya

In January I wrote about the way the Google Global Cache is affecting Uganda – how local web caching is completely changing the internet user experience for that country. We’ve known for a couple weeks that this was underway in Kenya too. Well, here are some numbers on that.

Here’s the aggregate month:

We’re seeing the overall traffic increase 300% from around 100Mbs to around 400Mbs. Those are some pretty impressive numbers, no matter how you look at them. Why is KIXP/TESPOK not making some noise about this significant achievement?

How does it look across the ISPs that are using it?

KDN hosts the cache:

Wananchi:

Internet Solutions:

Africa Online:

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