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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

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Mobile Broadband Internet in Africa

The Africa Report’s quarterly magazine has come out, this time with a report on mobile phones, internet penetration, BPO zones and mobile banking. If you’re not subscribed to this quarterly magazine yet, you should – it’s available in almost every country. Personally speaking, it’s one of only three magazines I subscribe to (the others are MAKE and Technology Review).

“The division between the ICT ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ now runs through the heart of the continent, geographically and generationally. While young urban Kenyans and Nigerians feel at home messaging one another on social-networking sites, the elders in the rural landlocked hinterlands have yet to send an email, and many have never made a phone call. Tunisia and Morocco compete furiously with one another in the business process outsourcing (BPO) market for francophone call centres, but most businesses in the Sahel have never heard of doing their accounts on Excel spreadsheets.

Mobile Broadband Internet in Africa

While it’s good to talk about mobile phone penetration, I was a lot more interested in seeing the discussion going on around mobile broadband internet and how that is the next big move in Africa for the operators. Passing data, not just voice, is the battleground of the future in Africa – and all the carriers are fighting to position themselves to win.

I saw this happening in my most recent trip to Kenya where the local ISPs are very much aware of their dongle-toting SIM card competition (see image below) found in Safaricom and Celtel. As voice services begin to erode for mobile carriers in Africa, they have to find new ways to compete. Of course, this means more and increasingly cheaper options for consumers around the continent.

Safaricom's Internet Broadband Dongle (with SIM Card)

With new carriers still entering into the fray, older ones having to change their business strategies, and ISPs who are also getting better international bandwidth connections the real battle for the internet in Africa is just beginning. It’s very much of a “wild west” atmosphere with huge stakes at both the country and regional levels.

[download the extract of this article here, a 772Kb PDF)

An Opportunity to Make Real Money in Africa

Just today Google has shown that they are willing to invest in African mobile phone businesses. Does Google’s purchase of an equity stake in Mobile Planet mean the big web/mobile money will start flowing throughout Africa? Not necessarily, but it made me think of a conversation that I tend to have a lot in my travels.

The topic of conversation usually turns to this; what type of web or mobile application can you build to make some serious money in Africa? Though there are many answers to that question, as I believe there are many options for successful web and mobile companies in Africa, there are only a few that I think of as “sure things”.

Any entrepreneur is looking to either a) create a company with solid cash flow and grow it, or b) create a solid company with value and then sell it (or have an IPO). On the web that takes some well-known paths, and the most common is option “b” where the entrepreneur’s sell their company to a larger web entity (Amazon, Google, eBay, Nokia…etc).

A “Sure Thing” Formula

Create a Jabber-based chat application that works on the mobile phone and the web, grow it to a 1-2 million users within a region, sell to Google.

Why does this work?
You build your chat application with Jabber since it can interface with Google’s GTalk. Jabber is free, and also happens to be the what a couple other major applications are built on (see South Africa’s Mxit). Google is trying to grow in Africa, and I assume would be extremely happy to pay a very healthy amount of money to acquire an application with millions of active users that is built on the same protocol as their own chat system.

Hand Holding a Mobile Phone

Challenges

The formula for this particular idea is built on two premises. First, that you can actually get a couple million users within an African region using your chat application. Second, that Google wants more users on their platform(s).

The first challenge is born from the fact most mobile phone users in Africa don’t use data enabled phones, so they can’t run a Jabber application on their phone. Mxit’s answer to this in South Africa was to show that for 10% of the cost of a normal SMS, you could send a message through their system (which happens to be a highly bastardized customized Jabber app). Your goal is to get people who don’t have a data enabled phone to upgrade to one.

The second challenge is beyond your control. You’ll never know if Google wants to buy you out until they come knocking. However, if let’s just say you shouldn’t have to many problems monetizing a system that has 1-2 million users on it anyway…

Your goals to overcome these challenges is found in tapping into communities and spreading your app virally to gain critical mass with speed. Once it spreads, the first application like this to reach a decent amount of saturation will be the winner, even if it has some faults (see Twitter).

Opportunities

Though chat is the core of your application, that is both web and mobile phone accessible, it’s not the only value added service that you can provide. With some creativity, you can add services that allow more people to tap into, including locally relevant events, news, marketplaces, personals, jobs, etc…

On top of these services, you’ve got the advantage of building on an open source platform that other services use as their core.

Lastly, and most importantly. If you were to reach even 500,000 users you would have an incredibly viable opportunity for advertising revenue. The ability to target specific advertisements, or sponsorships, through the platform make it a marketers dream. Basically, you might not need, nor want, a buy out after all.

In Summary

Is it really a “sure thing”? No, every business move has inherent risk and depends on execution of the strategy.

Is it a good basic idea that could be built into a real product with a solid exit strategy? Yes, undoubtedly so.

We’ve already seen the booming success of Mxit in South Africa. There’s no reason to believe that you couldn’t have a margin of that same success in East, West or North Africa with the same type of service. If you build it with an end-goal of Google integration in it at the end, you also set yourself up for a real possibility of a buy out.

2007 African Mobile Phone Statistics

Africa Telcom News has released a free report, called the African Mobile Factbook, that gives all of the major numbers on subscribers, penetration rates, profitability and growth potential for every African carrier and country. As anyone who is tries to do research in this space knows, it can be difficult to get some of these mobile phone statistics for Africa, so this is a welcome source for information.

Interesting Facts

  • Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt are the fastest growing markets
  • Africa has become the fastest growing mobile market in the world with mobile penetration in the region ranging from 100% to 30%
  • Pre-paid subscriptions account for nearly 95 percent of total mobile subscriptions in the region
  • Most of the mobile operators are home-grown. In 2005, the continent’s seven largest investors controlled 53% of the African mobile market
  • Across most of Africa, SMS is likely to be the only non-voice value-added service to gain mass market popularity in the immediate future
  • East Africans pay taxes of between 25% and 30% on mobile phone services, compared with an average of 17% across Africa
  • African states with less than 600,000 subscribers and includes Burundi, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Comoros (Union of the), Djibouti, Equitorial Guinea, Eritrea, Gambia (The), Lesotho, Liberia, Mayotte, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, Somalia, Swaziland and Rwanda.

Subscriber Numbers and Penetration Rates

At the end of 2007 there were 280.7 million mobile phone subscribers in Africa, representing a penetration rate of 30.4%. The chart below shows the historical numbers up until 2007, with projected growth and penetration rates through 2012.

Even more interesting, when you look at the major African markets, is to see the huge growth potential for areas that are already very profitable. As can be seen Nigeria, Kenya and Egypt have the greatest growth potential.

Africa’s Mobile Phone Operators (carriers)

There are (or will be) a staggering 11 mobile phone operators in Nigeria, with 4 in Kenya and South Africa, and 3 in egypt and Morocco.

“MTN dominates the African market with over 73.9 million subscribers in the region as of 4Q 2007 followed by Vodacom (33.4 million), Orascom (32.4 million), Zain (30.6 million) and Orange (27.7 million), respectively.”

Size doesn’t mean everything though, Millicom has the highest growth in revenues, and Orascom has the highest EBITDA margin, primarily due to its strategy of investing in the emerging mobile markets.

The chart below shows five of the leading mobile network operators in Africa in terms of their subscriber base (size of the bubble), revenue growth rate and EBITDA margin for the latest completed financial year.

In Summary

The growth rate in Africa over the last couple of years has been phenomenal, and will likely continue for the next 3-5 years. Major drivers of increased growth include:

  • Subsidization of handsets
  • Pre-paid offerings
  • Continued liberalization of the telcom sector
  • Low penetration rates
  • Expected uptake of 3G services

Growth inhibitors include:

  • Taxation – especially in East Africa
  • Low income across the continent hampers growth
  • Widespread illiteracy decreases the growth of value added services, even SMS
  • Unreliable electricity supplies
  • Corruption

I’m curious to see the uptake of both data services (3G and EDGE) as well as the increased number of low-cost handsets. Just yesterday I read a report of a Malaysian company setting up a mobile phone manufacturing plant in Mozambique, so there very well might be some super low-end phones available soon.

Mobile Phone Reporting in Africa

For the last year there has been quite a bit of talk about mobile phone reporting in Africa. For good reason too, since this lowers the technology barrier to getting stories out of hard-to-reach places. Imagine, all you need to do is find a journalist and equip them with an adequate mobile phone Now you can record interviews in video and audio, take pictures and upload in almost any part of the continent.

Netherland’s based AfricaNews has been a pioneer in this space, starting last year with their “Voices of Africa” section of their site. I’ve been continually impressed with how they find, train and equip their journalists all over Africa. My one problem with what they do is that they don’t allow for the proliferation of their reporters work around the web by hamstringing the ability to share by embedding the reports in other websites.

Colin Daniels is the Publisher for Times Online in South Africa, arguably one of the better newspapers and always on the cutting edge of news sites online globally. A couple weeks ago he posted on his personal blog about a new initiative in where Nokia is testing mobile journalism through local universities using the Nokia/Reuter’s mobile newskit. He says,

“This has all been made possible by constant technological breakthroughs and the portability and immediacy of connected mobile devices; it is becoming increasingly feasible for journalists to replace their pens and dictaphones for converged smart phones with exceptional audio/visual capabilities such as the Nokia N95. Add a keyboard, tripod, and an external microphone and all of a sudden you have a portable newsroom and studio in one…”

A true, and exciting statement that applies to mainstream journalism and blogging. Colin refers to the N95 “Mojo” toolkit (pictured above) that Reuters uses as well. The value here is that as mainstream news sources put more resources towards mobile journalism the tools get better for everyone (amateur and professional).

All of this optimism has to be tempered with some real-world examples of how it’s still a difficult field to work in and how the technology is still not quite there for full-fledged real-time news feeds. David Axe, a war journalist, wrote a fascinating article for Wired on the failures of his mobile phone trials in Chad matching up a Nokia N95 with streaming mobile news service Qik.

It should be noted the problem was not with the phone, but with the web service Qik and the poor mobile data network in Chad. This can be a real problem for anyone using MMS or any other GSM service. Though some parts of Africa have strong networks, many others are home to the worst in the world. Of course, this makes Africa one of the great testing grounds for any new device or service, so there is a silver lining to every cloud.

“…there should be a “store” function, whereby you can shoot a video in some austere location, save it to your phone’s memory, then stream it later once you’ve got a solid network. With that function alone, I could’ve filed scores of fascinating videos about refugee camps, peacekeepers and urban combat.”

A simple solution, utilizing SD card memory could have made his trial a success. David’s quote above serves to underscore one other incredibly important point; web and mobile services need to at least test in Africa, if not have a small development shop there to truly create robust applications. After all, if it can work in Africa, it can work anywhere.

FrontlineSMS (v2) is Reborn & Ready for Use

One of the guys that I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know over the years is Ken Banks. He’s a tireless believer, and more importantly practitioner, in the field of mobile phone as change agent in the world. His FrontlineSMS mobile phone software has been making waves from Chile to Nigeria, and it’s use is only accelerating.

Since its initial release in 2005, FrontlineSMS has been adopted by NGOs in over forty countries for a wide range of activities including blood donor recruitment, assisting human rights workers, promoting government accountability, keeping medical students informed about education options, providing security alerts to field workers, election monitoring, the capture and exchange of vegetable (and coffee) price information, the distribution of weather forecasts, the co-ordination of healthcare workers, the organising of political demonstrations, the carrying out of surveys and the reporting and monitoring of disease outbreaks.

As of today (9am GMT), the new and improved version of FrontlineSMS will be unveiled. The software will continue to be made available for free to non-profits, available in Windows, Mac and Linux formats in six languages; Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Swahili.

Knowing Ken personally has a few perks, like the chance to see the new version early and know the amount of work he’s been putting into making this come into being. On top of that, Ushahidi will be utilizing FrontlineSMS as an extension to the new version of the tool we’re creating – and I know that InSTEDD plans to do the same. You know you’ve created something remarkable when you’re starting to make an impact on the NGO and the technology sides of the world.

Keeping up with Ken is difficult, as he’s a road warrior constantly speaking at conferences or in the field with his software. My suggestion is that you join the his Social Mobile Facebook group, catch him on Twitter, or read along on the Kiwanja.net blog.

Ken, congrats on this, I know it’s been a long time coming. Next drink is on me! 🙂

Steve Mutinda: Brains, Initiative and J2ME Skills

Every once in a while, in this line of work, you get a genuinely welcome and unexpected surprise. That’s what happened the other night when I met up with some local tech guys and a certain Steve Mutinda showed up just happening to mention that he did some J2ME programming. He has created two mobile phone apps (and working on a third), which I’ll review over a couple of posts.

In brief, LiveQuotes let’s you track the Nairobi Stock Exchange (NSE) from your GPRS enabled phone.

The NSE updates their data every time a trade happens, and that information can be downloaded as a CSV. Steve has it setup so that he checks it every minute, allowing you to have near real-time access to the exchange, and a scrolling ticker for your selected portfolio. Want to see how your stock has done over time? No problem, there is a basic line chart showing how your shares have done historically.

Steve started this about 3 months ago, soft-launching it to a few friends as he worked on new features and fixed things up. So far there are 200 users. I would expect that to change soon. 800,000 Kenyans have just bought into the Safaricom IPO was his inspiration, and a good one because it means there are hundreds of thousands of new stock owners in Kenya.

While it’s fee right now, plans are to charge 30/= Kenya Shillings per week ($0.50 cents) per user. Anyone can receive the application through a simple SMS with a link to the URL, and then registering on the spot. Safaricom or Celtel (depending on which carrier the end user has) will act as middleman for transactions, paying Steve on a monthly basis.

A little math will tell you that by getting just 10,000 users he will make about 300,000/= per week ($4,665). $18,000/month is a nice salary by almost anyone’s standards. I’ll be asking for a loan from him soon, I hope.

What else is in the future? Uganda and Tanzania for one, possibly the rest of Africa if things go well. On the technology side, look for some type of API that will allow others to access the same pre-parsed information.

See it in action in the video below:

On the Road to Kenya (and links)

I’ll be offline for the next couple days as I hit the road for Nairobi. I’m arriving just in time for the Safari Sevens rugby tournament starting Friday, and will be in Nairobi until the end of the month. If anyone wants to get together, shoot me an email.

I thought I’d leave everyone with some links to stories that I’ve enjoyed over the last week.

  • Mobiles in Africa – one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time on the mobile phone in Africa, by Ken Banks.
  • Few people can write long interesting articles, but some have the skill to do it. Ethan Zuckerman writes another thought provoking post on the architecture of Serendipity.
  • Find a job in Kenya using SMS on Kazi560:
  • myKRO – A new blog about the world of microfinance. They’re looking for contributors, especially from the field in Africa.
  • A nice article on how to get the most out of your thumbdrive from Freelance Switch.
  • 50 Questions asked and answered about Android on ZDnet.
  • Through Mobimii, MXit users are no longer bound to the MXit service. Breaking news by Charl Norman for Mxit users in South Africa.

More in a day or two, once I land…

Quick Hits: Ushahidi and African Mobile Posts

We’re at the NetSquared conference (day 2) still, where we’ll learn the verdict of the voters on whether or not we win. So, cross your fingers! Here’s an interview done of me (short). I actually was laughing at myself since it looks like I’m talking into a fish-eye lense.

Short interview at NetSquared of me. I’ll add the one of David when it is posted.(video)

Ushahidi covered on the TED Blog

The Ushahidi team at N2Y3
(image by Manny Hernandez founder of Tudiabetes
and Estudiabetes, two communities for people
touched by diabetes. On the right is Vam Makam, our new friend and local expert from Adobe.)

After the NetSquared event last night, David and I took off for the WordPress party where we met up with Matt Mullenweg, creator of WordPress.

Mobile Phone Posts
One of my favorite bloggers has written a piece on South African mobile banking options.

A write up by Katrin of Mobile Active on the “Say no to Xenophobia” campaign being run by Cell-Life in South Africa. I hope their campaign starts coordinating with the United for Africa campaign soon, it only makes sense.

Jan Chipchase on, “Understanding Non-Literacy as a Barrier to Mobile Phone Communication“, part of a larger publication.

Crossing the Mapping Chasm

As I was putting together my talk on “Activist Mapping” for Where 2.0, I realized that I was getting a little to fragmented in message. One of the areas I’m probably not going to have time to cover is what I consider the consumer-accessibility of mapping tools, so here it is.

Is There Something to be Learned from the Blogging Evolution?
In my last blog post I showed a slide talking about the timeline of major blogging engines. I did this because I was exploring a premise that there might be something in common with the way self-publishing tools on the web have developed, and the way mapping tools are developing. As I’ve dealt with mapping solutions on eppraisal.com and Ushahidi, I can’t help but think how powerful they are, but still so hard for a non-programmer to really master. The beauty of the blogging engines is that they finally created a way for an “ordinary” person to create a personal website.

Is this where mapping is in comparison?

When I look at that timeline, I wonder if we’re not in the same era with mapping that we were in with blog CMS tools back in the early 2000’s?

Comparing 3 Digital Activist Tools
As I was thinking about mapping, blogging and activism, I also thought about another one of the core digital tools that activist use worldwide: mobile phones. What would a simple comparison be between the 3?

Comparing blogging, mobiles and mapping for activists

Blogging’s learning curve is fairly shallow, if you can handle email or word processing, then you can understand how blogging works and do it. It’s middling when it comes to accessibility worldwide, due to bandwidth and PC requirements.

Mobiles are moderately hard to work into good activist campaigns, additional software can make this easier, but planning the campaign doesn’t necessarily take a technologist. Accessibility is widespread and simple to g

Getting from the Tech Elite to “Everyone Else”
Those thoughts led me to think about Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm book, where he talks about the difficulties of getting technologies to leap from the technology elite to the the masses. By anyones definition, I think we’ve seen that happen with blogging. Not so with mapping… yet.

Geoffrey Moore's Crossing the Chasm

Within the mapping ranks there are definitely those that are trying. Google’s My Maps and Platial/Frappr come to mind as I think of good examples of consumer-facing self-generated mapping applications. However, so much of what is being done (as cool/powerful/amazing as it is) is still only understood and grokked by the mapping gurus of the world.

This is seen first hand in what we had to do with Ushahidi. The ability to just create a map system that was even slightly geo-coded correctly for Kenya took a little work. Not everyone could just jump right in and mashup something as simple as that. Will it ever be as easy as jumping in and creating a blog, or will mapping always be a tech-centered effort?

A Mobile 2.0 Presentation

I’m on my way to San Francisco for the Global Philanthropy Forum, and have been pretty busy. In the absence of any real thoughtful post by me, I thought it might be good to make everyone aware of a presentation that I found online by Rudy De Waele of M-Trends.org.

It’s got a ton of great information and food for thought. Enjoy!

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