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Tag: mobile web

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.)

Pay Attention to the Mobile Web

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

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

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

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

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

What does it look like?

Here are a couple of examples:

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

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

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

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

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

Motribe: The Mobile Web Community Builder

The Mobile Web is the future of mobile apps, and it’s not surprising to see Vincent Maher and Nic Haralambous, from South Africa, on the front end of it. Motribe is a simple community building platform for the mobile web. You can easily get a site up and going in an hour that allows chat, photo sharing, private messaging and mobile blogs.

That bit about the mobile web is important, since it means you can browse to it on most phones, and you don’t need a special app for it built on all the smartphone platforms, like iPhone, Android, Ovi, WinMo and Bada – as in, there’s one less barrier to entry.

I asked Vincent why he chose mobile web, his response:

“Mobile is the killer internet platform for Africa, but also the rest of the world. We have found that our younger users prefer using an ipod touch to surf the web than a PC. Motribe works on 4000 devices (or more) and the Motribe plan is to change the way people use social networks in emerging markets.”

Initial funding was raised 4DI Capital, and they’ve got a clear business strategy, which is to sell their product. Pricing ranges from $10 to $50, and each level gives you a greater ability to customize and “own” the mobile social network that you’ve built. There is also an enterprise level available for bigger brands and companies. Motribe also has a free plan with core features and a 100-user limit for you to get started quickly.

Its built on Amazon EC2, S3, RDS and Cloudfront using PHP, Codeigniter, Google Charts, JQuery and Cassandra. Vincent stated that, “Cassandra is the most interesting of the components because its going to be the key to scaling to millions of users.”

Giving it a Test Run

I went ahead and signed up to give Motribe a whirl. My test site is AfriGadget.Motribe.mobi, where I’ll put up some stuff from AfriGadget and see if a community grows around it. Just getting going, I can see that a lot of attention has been put behind this platform (as would be expected with veterans like Vincent and Nic).

Some notes:

  • Signup: done easily, nice little touch to provide a QR code directing to a URL for login.
  • Setting up a community: simple, see image below.
  • Access code: for when you want only certain people to join
  • Test mode: for making sure your community is setup right before it goes live
  • Themes: many simplified stock themes available out of the box.
  • QR code generator: there’s a neat QR code generated for the URL of your new site. (Would be nice to have this as an embed code for websites)

There are a couple example sites already going – emofwendz.com is the one they ran for the pilot, and it has some fantastic engagement stats, like an average of over 100 pages viewed per visit (the norm for web sites is about 5) and average visit lengths of around 60 minutes. Today, Vincent said, an Afrikaans-language site was created for Christians http://ekerk.motribe.mobi, its a good example of exactly what they people to do with the platform.

Some Thoughts

If there’s any platform that’s come out of Africa in the last year that fills a global need, it’s Motribe. I won’t be surprised to see this go big at all.

There are always teething pains, experimentation and adjustments when a new platform goes live. I found a few issues, like when I went to upload my logos they threw a bug (I was a pixel off on the size, thus the issue). Not unexpected in a brand new platform, and I’m sure it’ll be fixed shortly.

I wasn’t able to test out the “Custom URL” and “Advertising Manager” features, though I would like to see how each is implemented. It might be worth having a section on the website to preview at least the Advertising Manager in more detail to see if it’s worth upgrading to.

There isn’t any SMS functionality yet, and I’m not sure there needs to be either. As Vincent said, “we don’t have a need for SMS right now but we may well integrate SMS at a later stage depending on whether we can find some good uses for it.”

Worth reading: other posts by TechCentral and the Daily Maverick.

Mobile Web East Africa – Stream