Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Tag: cell (page 2 of 4)

Location, Mobiles and Social Networks

It’s all beginning to come together, at least on the fringe where all of us technocrats live. Social networks have been humming along quite nicely, many people you know are now part of a service like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Bebo or Mxit. On the edges, some applications have started to pair up location-based services around them, thus the rise of smaller applications like FireEagle, Loopt and Brightkite.

What’s always seemed to be missing is a way for location, mobile phones and social networks to coalesce. A way for you to communicate with people, be it updates, comments or chat – and then apply location to that as you chose. Those social networks that tried to do it all couldn’t do it at this level, because they didn’t have critical mass (such as Brightkite). Those that had reach, like Twitter or Facebook, don’t have a simple way to play with location for everyone.

Enter Google Latitude

Just over a week ago, Google Latitude launched. It’s a location-based service that mashes up Google’s own mapping products with Google’s communication products; Gmail and gTalk (chat). One week later, they announced that a million people were already using the service in the 27 countries that they had released it into.

Google Latitude Screenshot

While people are discussing how great the technology works, and it does seem to be quite impressive if you carry one of the supported smart phones platforms (BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Symbian and Android), I believe there’s something even bigger going on here. Google has not had much success in the social network space, so they are taking a rather nontraditional approach to getting embedded into people’s lives at a much more foundational level. Gmail has a base of 50 million+ accounts, and each comes with a chat service, which has gained quite a bit of popularity. Not to mention, SMS was enabled within chat just a couple months ago, in December.

What Google appears to be doing, is leveraging its massive user base, tied together through email and chat services, and pairing it together into a larger community that works within it’s mapping infrastructure.

(Putting on my Ushahidi hat, this has some pretty big ramifications for disaster and emergency work in locations where Google use is heavy.)

The competition

It also has the potential to change the game for some other large services. What happens if people start using Google Latitude for their status updates instead of Twitter and Facebook? What service do you use to find out what’s happening on a Friday night?

It will be very interesting to see what types of reactions to this service arise out of the large social networks, especially those with a large international footprint. Getting location, mobile and social networks to play together isn’t easy, yet these organizations will not sit by as Google whittles away at their empire.

Here’s something to think about. If you didn’t realize this before, pay attention: the big international showdown in this space is between Google and Nokia in the coming years. They have been gaming each other for over two years, and as the race to the edges begins, you’ll see them come head-to-head more often.

Nokia Ovi

1.5 years ago Nokia bought mapping service Navteq in a mega-deal at over $8 billion. Last summer they launched Ovi, which allows remote sync capability for photos, contacts and calender, gains access to music and games, and marries up their mapping and sharing capabilities. It’s what Nokia is banking on for their consumer value-added services in the future.

I’m not sure who will win out on usage in the end, but I do think that Google’s Latitude is an incredibly strong and under-the-radar type play that should be watched very closely. One thing is for sure though, the organization that opens up for easy third-party development on their platform will have a better chance.

Mobile Phone Quick Hits Around Africa

I find that there are more mobile phone projects going on in Africa than I can write about. Instead, here are some quick links for you to follow on the ones that I find the most interesting:

Mobile Phone with Money in Kenya

Mobile banking and payments

(Probably the most lucrative space in mobiles in Africa right now, it’s amazing it’s taken this long to really get started)

Canadian firm Redknee selected to supply Uganda Telecom with mobile money services.

Mxit (South African chat client) starts bridging the gap with mobile money. It uses Standard Bank’s MiMoney as an electronic payment voucher that can be purchased through self-banking channels and various retailers.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, along with the GSM Association, have announced a programme that will expand the availability of mobile banking services in the developing world. The Mobile Money for the Unbanked (MMU) programme, supported by a US$12.5 million grant from the foundation

Mobile health services

(This is all the rage now in the foundation and non-profit space)

50 case studies of mHealth projects, the majority of which are in sub-Saharan Africa, by the UN Foundation. (Download the 4.3Mb PDF)


Nokia and Adobe have announced a $10 million fund to develop Flash based applications for mobile phones. The new fund is a result of the Open Screen Project, an industry-wide initiative of more than 20 industry leaders set to enable a consistent experience for web browsing and standalone applications.

Mobile-XL: SMS Browser for Mobiles in Africa

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


Big, Strong Moves

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

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

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

The XLBrowser, and why it matters

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

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

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

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

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

30 Great African Tech Blogs

A conversation on Twitter with Marshall Kirkpatrick of RWW about the top tech blogs to read in Africa made me realize that there is no great list to start from. Most of us just have them in our head, RSS feeds or blogrolls. Some of them don’t update frequently enough, and many of the range across topics, but all of them are useful if you are trying to figure out what is going on in technology around Africa.

Here is a list of African tech blogs that I follow. Hopefully it can be a resource, and a good place for everyone to start from when exploring the mobile, web and general tech space in Africa:

General Web and African Tech

AfriGadget – Stories of low-tech African ingenuity and innovation
Afromusing – Juliana’s insights and thoughts on alternative energy in Africa
Appfrica – Pan-African and Ugandan web and mobile tech developments
Bandwidth Blog – Charl Norman’s blog in South Africa
Bankelele – One of East Africa’s top business bloggers, also has great insights into the business side of African technology
Build Africa – Matt’s musings on technology in Africa
Charl van Niekerk – Always insightful post from one of South Africa’s great coders
Coda.co.za – One of Africa’s very best web designers
Dewberry – Shaun’s frenetic blog on general, and South African tech
My Hearts in Accra – More of generalist these days, but excellent analysis of African tech space by Ethan Zuckerman
Henry Addo – A perspective on tech from Henry in Ghana
Geek Rebel – Henk’s blog on entrepreneurship and technology
Matthew Buckland – From one of the pioneers, and big thinkers, in the South African media space
Mike Stopforth – Entrepreneur and South African social media nexus point
Nubian Cheetah – Thoughts and news on West African tech
Oluniyi David Ajao – Web coverage from Ghana
Open Source Africa – Just what the name describes… talking about open source development in Africa
Paul in Sierra Leone – hardware tech news from a very hard place to get news/info from
Startup Africa – Tracking mostly South African web startups
Startups Nigeria – Just what the title says
Stii – One of my favorite true coder blogs out of South Africa
Timbuktu Chronicles – A must-read covering pan-African technology, from web to mobile to hardware
Bits/Bytes – Coding thoughts by the unique and always hilarious “M” from Thinker’s Room.
Vincent Maher – Vincent’s excellent, fun and controversial blog on all things South African tech
Web Addict(s) – From the mind of Rafiq, opinionated coverage and thoughts on South African tech

African Mobile-focused Blogs

Epic Mobile – mobile phone tips and tricks from South Africa
Jopsa.org – (aka Mobiles in Malawi), thoughts by Josh Nesbit in Malawi
Kiwanja – Ken Banks on mobile usage and his FrontlineSMS app, much of it in Africa
Mobile Africa – A great resource for mobile news across Africa
Mobility Nigeria – track what’s happening in the Nigerian mobile phone space
Fring – the only tool/app on this list

5 Non-blog Tech Sites and Tools for Africa

Afrigator – the defacto blog tracking tool for African blogs
Amatomu – the South African blogosphere tracker
Mobile Active – Katrin does a good job of finding reports and stories about mobiles in Africa
Muti – mostly South African tech news and gossip, a reddit/digg for interesting African news/blog links
Videoreporter.nl – Ruud’s videos consistently have great tech stories
Akouaba – A French language blog tracker for West Africa

The, “If I missed it”…

I likely missed many blogs that should be on this list. Please add them to the comments below. I know I’ve missed quite a few Francophone and Arabic ones, so PLEASE add those especially.

Additions (aka, ones I missed):

Many Possibilities – Steve Song on open source in Africa
Africa 2.0 – A French language blog talking about all things new media in Africa
Subsaharska – Miquel, building a blogging tool for Africa (Maneno)
Arthur Devriendt – French blog on web tech in Africa

Africa: the Mobiles vs PCs Debate

Paul Currion recently compared Abraham Moslow’s quote, “When the only tool you own is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail.” to an article by Cory Doctorow in the Guardian titled, “Laptops, not mobile phones, are the means to liberate the developing world“.

The basic premise is that we cannot expect great innovation and technological breakthroughs from Africans until computers are ubiquitous in Africa. He states that the mobile phone just doesn’t provide the platform necessary for real programming and hacking to happen. That mobile phones are an interim step, not the final answer. And finally, that IT infiltrates social groups when, and as, they find a personal need for it.

Sierra Leone

Mobiles vs PCs

Cory’s points are valid. All things being equal the best device to get into the hands of kids is a personal computer. Having a full-sized keyboard and monitor are better than trying to program on a mobile phone. There’s nothing to disagree with there.

One of the reasons I have liked the OLPC initiative is because they have forced the door open to low-cost laptops in the developing world. The more computers we get into the hands of kids, the better Africa’s future will be.

However, there’s the reality that I see on the ground as I travel. Sure, there are a few people with access to computers and who are creating applications and services through it for the web, PCs and mobile phones. They generally have a college-level education and are entrepreneurial in nature. A lot of the innovative work being done on the PC is applications for the mobile phone.

So, PC access plus education tend to equal more mobile applications.

The other item that I’m finding more and more of a problem for mobile developers is getting the license to actually get their product to market, much less sell it. If they do, it’s at outrageous rates that the carriers should be ashamed of.

Merging mobile phones, PCs and the web

Here’s an interesting question. What happens as we see the merging of mobile phones, PCs and the web? We’re talking about the “mobile web” more and more, and how smarter devices like the iPhone, Android and Symbian devices let us do almost as much as we can on a PC.

Will full-sized PC computers become less relevant as we simply attach keyboards and/or monitors to the device in our pocket?

That’s a question I’d like to explore more. Are there examples of this type of work happening already in any organized fashion?

[Update: I see that MobileActive and Steve Song have weighed in on this as well.]

The Fastest Growing Mobile Networks in Africa (Q3 2008)

The Mobile World Briefing has just released a newsletter with the numbers for the fastest growing Mobile Network Operators in the Middle East and Africa. To little surprise, Egypt leads the pack followed by Nigeria and Kenya.

Top 10 Fastest Growing Mobile Operators in Middle East and Africa

Mobinil in Egypt produced by far the best result in the region, with 2.58m net adds – more than it connected in the first two quarters of the year and nearly one million more than second placed MTN Nigeria managed. The Egyptian market has been booming since the launch of the country’s third network, but as is so often the way, the incumbents have been the main beneficiaries.”

Nigeria has had absolutely amazing growth numbers in mobile phone subscribers, and even though they’re one of the top in this report, they still can’t beat their Q2 2008 quarter when they added 7,380,000 connections (yes, that many in one quarter). That is more than double what any other carrier has been able to grow their connections by in any other African country.

“Kenyan companies take sixth and tenth. Safaricom, the Vodafone associate, added 1.12m new connections in the quarter to strengthen its lead over Zain Kenya. Zain remains the main threat in Kenya, but its 0.65m net adds in Q3 do not fully offset the loss of 0.98m seen in Q4 07 and Q1 08 and the company’s base is still down, year on year.”

Overall, we’re seeing a slight decrease in growth in Africa as a whole. Not much, not even near a plateau, but lower growth rates than in previous years. There are still many more fat bottom lines ahead for these carriers, but they do have to start thinking a lot more about two big areas: data and customer service.

Microblogging, Location and Emergencies

I’ve been using Twitter for a while now, and have thought quite a bit about it in Africa. More, I’ve thought about what the ramifications of Twitter pulling out of the global market means, and then thought quite a bit about Jaiku, Laconica and Mxit and various other chat/microblogging applications. There is, without a doubt, a move towards short-form updating via mobile and web, and it needs to be federated.

There’s something missing in this new mobile + web microblogging movement, and I think it’s location.

Thoughts on location and microblogging...

Why Location Matters

Most of us use these services for updating, and being updated, by our friends and interesting people. That’s the main use, and it will remain so. The truth is, you and I don’t really care to hear what any random stranger is doing, even if they are nearby. However, we do care what is happening on a very hyper-local level in the case of emergency or “big event”.

It’s somewhat like the “pothole theory” that I talked about earlier: you wouldn’t normally care about the pothole on a steet, unless it’s yours. It helps explain why we care about certain things.

If you use Twitter and have an iPhone, you’ll probably be aware of Twinkle – it’s an application that enriches your Twitter experience. In Twinkle, you can set your location and then a certain radius from which to receive twitter updates, even if they’re from perfect strangers. I think that’s the beginning of what we’re talking about.

However, again… I don’t want to just get updates from random strangers in my locale. I want to only receive the ones that are “important” to me. I want to be notified when there is an emergency, major traffic jam or something else pertinent to me.

The “What if…”

What if we created a way that a greater federated system of microblogging applications could also use location as an alert point?

Of course, my current world is colored by Ushahidi, crisis and emergency news coverage. I think of the ability to anonymously send in reports to a system like Ushahidi running in any country, and those who are part of this greater, extended and federated network would be updated – even if that person was unknown and anonymous.

Federated Microblogging, SMS and Location

Here’s a use case:

John is a Twitter user in Accra, Ghana. Anne has setup a local Laconica server with 5000 users in the greater Accra area. Eddie is not part of any of these networks, just an average guy with a mobile phone. Ushahidi is running in Ghana.

Users from the Laconica group can setup an “alert” for a specific radius from their location using Ushahidi, linked to their Laconica account.

An earthquake happens and Twitter and the Laconica server are ablaze with dialogue about what is happening. Eddie (our normal guy), sends an alert into the Ushahidi number, along with hundreds of other Ghanians who are not part of Laconica or Twitter. Anne, and the other Laconica users are receiving alerts (web and mobile) from within their set alert radius automatically, from completely anonymous people. Alerts on where people are trapped, who is missing, who is found, where not to go, and where help is needed most.

John, our Twitter user is updating Twitter, but it has no little local implications due to not being able to be used in Ghana (except via web). Local mobile users aren’t receiving his updates, and he isn’t receiving theirs.

I recognize that there are a lot of things going on in this scenario, and it’s imperfect, but it serves as a good setting to discuss some of the shortcomings of the current situation and the possible growth areas for them. It also talks to even bigger ideas and the greater impact in Africa of a real social mobile network that can connect people using only mobile phones and do it as needed.

There are some interesting things to learn and apply from location-specific alternatives to global SMS gateways (like FrontlineSMS), and I wonder where tools such as InSTEDD’s SMS GeoChat can be used here too.

More to come on “getting updates that matter” later, this is just some initial thinking on it. I’d love to hear your thoughts too.

Building Mobile Apps for Africa

(Note: I’m going to ask you to contribute to this at the end, so start thinking…!)

I just got back from another trip to Kenya. This time I spent a week with Ken Banks as part of a workshop on social media in Africa, put on by some really smart people (thanks Mika and Linda!). As generally happens when we get in a room together, we start talking over some ideas that are bigger than what either of us are up to at the moment.

This time the discussion revolved around developing mobile phone applications in, and for, places like Africa. It’s becoming quite popular to create mobile products and services, but it’s still fairly new. It has only been a couple years since we first started seeing applications focused on this specific kind market. What have we learned? Are there any best practices on design and implementation? Is there a notebook for new developers to go to to learn what to do (and more important, what not to do)?

Anthony at SM4SC

19 tips from someone who’s been there

As Ken states, “In my experience, many social mobile projects fail in the early stages. Lack of basic reality-checking and a tendency to make major assumptions are lead culprits, yet they are relatively easy to avoid.

If there’s anyone who knows this field it’s Ken. He’s not only a thinker in this space, but he’s a doer as well. His application, FrontlineSMS, has cut it’s teeth here and he’s had to answer all the hard questions, which everyone else has benefited from. He has successfully created a basic platform that many other applications can build on.

Make sure you read Kens observations and tips on building mobile phones for developing countries.

Here are a couple:

  • Never let a lack of money stop you. If considerable amounts of funding are required to even get a prototype together, then that’s telling you something – your solution is probably overly complex.
  • Ensure that the application can work on the most readily and widely available hardware and network infrastructure.
  • Bear in mind that social mobile solutions need to be affordable, ideally free.

My contribution

  1. The next generation of Africans are more mobile literate than you (or me), so when you develop something make sure you keep it open enough for them to evolve its use.
  2. Develop for the common denominator – that is SMS services only. If you have the time, and see a need later, then go for the fancy Java apps.
  3. Data services, like SMS are a good starting point, but don’t overlook the use and integration of voice. This is especially relevant in areas where local language dialects and literacy are an issue.
  4. If you can, provide a basic service, and let the local users develop a plan for how to use it in their area.

Your contribution

Here’s where you chime in on what you think people should know before they build a mobile phone service or product for Africa. Got any tips for? Lessons to remember? Make sure you do/don’t do something?

Tanzanian Farmers and Their SMS-Empowered Market Spy

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

(Video link)

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

If it Works in Africa, It Will Work Anywhere

(This is from my talk on mobile phones in Africa, at the Picnic conference in Amsterdam this morning.)

if it works in Africa...

Africa is brimming with innovative people, projects and organizations. The fact that I’m standing here today proves this out – you see, I’ve been writing about those stories for the past 3 years.

Some of you are already familiar with Africa’s mobile stats, but not everyone is. Let’s run through some numbers, and take a minute to really appreciate the staggering growth of just one industry on our continent.


  • At the end of 2007 there were over 280 million mobile phone subscribers in Africa, representing a penetration rate of 30.4%
  • Africa has become the fastest growing mobile market in the world with mobile penetration in the region ranging from 30% to 100%
  • Look at the diversity in penetration rates among countries, just in Africa. It’s good to remember that when we speak about “mobile phones in Africa” that not all are created equal.
  • Fastest growing markets are in Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt
  • Increased competition as more operators come online in each country (11 in Nigeria, 4 in Kenya and SA, 3 in Egypt and Morocco)
  • Pre-paid subscriptions account for nearly 95 percent of total mobile subscriptions in the region

How fast has it grown?

  • The Democratic Republic of Congo, population 60 million, has 10,000 fixed telephones but more than a million mobile phone subscribers.
  • In Chad, the fifth-least developed country, mobile phone usage jumped from 10,000 to 200,000 in three years.

What sectors does this touch? All, of course, but mobile’s have proven especially effective in:Transport, Micro-commerce, Finance, Healthcare, Governance, Education, Infotainment

Examples of innovative services

Mobile payments and mobile banking

  • MPESA – This is what happens when the rest of the world ignores your need for a payment system. One of the golden children of Africa’s mobile revolution, when anyone brings up a successful mobile service in Africa. It works, and we’re all extremely happy to have the idea of mobile micro payments piloted and tested by Safaricom, but it also promotes a carrier monopoly in an industry AND continent that is crying for a real payment solution.
  • Wizzit – Mobile banking in South Africa
  • Celpay – Zambia – An innovative payment solution that allows consumers and businesses to complete cash transactions from their mobile phones. CelPay eliminates the problems that accompany dealing in cash visits to the bank, waiting in lines, counting and recounting money, fear of theft, and forgone interest payments. Instead, consumers with CelPay can use their mobile phone to do anything they would with cash, thanks to a payment system that works like a bank account.

Africa News Mobile Reporters
The Dutch group behind Africanews.com has put together a fleet of reporters around Africa using high end mobile phones, equipped with video and camera, to report short interviews and events from the field. Nokia/Reuter’s mobile newskit – Nokia N71

Ushahidi – Citizen reporting during a crisis (now an open source project).

Ashifi Gogo created a way to use SMS to authenticate drugs in Ghana, a system that simplifies and decreases the cost of doing this and that can be replicated anywhere in the world.

Winafrique’s Wind-powered cellular towers
Hybrid wind and diesel turbine systems for powering cell phone base stations.

Agricultural markets
A free service for farmers in West Africa to see local agricultural market prices around their region. It enables farmers and traders in agricultural commodities in Africa to conduct business through the use of SMS.

Senegalese company Manobi, which operates online systems for businesses in the developing world, first launched the trading platform for farmers and fishermen in the west African nation, and says it has signed up 40,000 customers there. Farmers can access the information on a web-based trading platform via Internet-enabled phones, or can request prices and make trades via SMS, or text message.

How is it being used?

Projects, products and services created as secondary services by individuals and organizations all over the continent.

African mobile subscriber growth

Restricted mobility
A cell phone operator in a remote African village where competition is tough, offers his customers some privacy, by allowing them to try out a cell phone, tethered to a long wire.

Steve Mutinda‘s 3 java applications
Shows an individual using his free time, and trying to create applications that are value added and will make him money. He epitomizes the smart, young entrepreneurs of the continent.

Morris Mbetsa – “Block & Track” auto anti-theft system

Feedelix, dealing with government censorship (Ethiopia)
The Ethiopian government instituted SMS filtering services, which caused some enterprising Ethiopians to launch Feedelix, which is an SMS-like client that supports Amharic characters. The Java application then uses the ability of many phones to transmit data via GPRS through internet protocols to mimic SMS.

Ethioblog – Literacy and/or linguistic challenges
There are challenges to in Africa too, where there are higher rates of non-literacy, or where they don’t speak the language available on their handset. Last year in Ethiopia, some guys got together and developed 200 Amharic language characters that they used to develop a phone book, message and phone settings in Amharic.

Mobile phone equipped bicycles – Bodaphone (Kiwanja), Wheelchair bikes equipped (Ruud Elmendorp)

Phone charging stations/businesses
Most of the time this takes the simple form of a car battery, but you’ll also find enterprising people using other methods (legal and illegal) to run business that only do this.

In Summary

The truth is that there are some very interesting, and surprising, developments coming out of Africa. Every culture modifies use or the device itself to meet local needs – this is no different in Africa, and we’re seeing that evolution happen right before our eyes.

Africa's default device

The default device in Africa is the mobile phone.

Here’s one more compelling thought. The challenges brought about by bad governance, poverty, low bandwidth (all the negative things you associate with Africa) also provide an incredible opportunity. The developers who are coming up with solutions in the continent, the ones who are writing software or hacking hardware, are creating for some of the harshest environments and use-cases in the world. If it works in Africa, it will work anywhere.

(Africa News has the video up already – video’d through their mobile phone of course. )

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