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Tackling Africa’s Classified Listings Space

Just over a year ago I was frustrated. We had just moved back to Kenya and I was trying to outfit our house with a few necessities. Just finding sellers of the items we were looking for was a pain, as there were no options for classifieds services online that had much to offer.

Being a builder and a problem solver I wanted to better understand what was going on here. Why, in 2010 did I have to go to one of 7 large shopping centers across town, in Nairobi’s terrible traffic, in order to look at a notice board to find products? With this in mind, I sat down and penned a strategy paper that I thought could address the problem.

(Below is the overview, the full document is to long to post)

The Overview

No organization or entity in Kenya has come up with a good classifieds network. There is little, to no, traction in the online space and the offline arena is a fractured market where each group protects their fiefdom and doesn’t share their ad content. This is seen in the popularity and reach of the classifieds at major shopping centers like Sarit Centre, Yaya and Village Market, but also in the newspapers and mailing lists.

There is also no good option for digital classifieds, even though there have been multiple attempts, including Nation Media Group’s N-Soko, Craigslist Kenya and eBay’s Kijiji as well as many small operations by Kenyan developers.

This fractured landscape, as well as a missing digital nexus point for classifieds in Kenya, creates a large and open opportunity. Real money is ready to be made, as there are many frustrated buyers and sellers who need an outlet.

In order to succeed at making real money with classifieds listings in Kenya, one needs to have a strategy for both the analog and the digital sides. It’s not enough to make a great classifieds website – as N-Soko and Craigslist are showing us. Neither is it good enough to have just offline newspaper ads or shopping center message boards.

The document went on for another 5 pages outlining a solution that I thought married up what was needed: a way to mix Kenya’s analog community habits and the efficiencies of a digital solution.

Our Solution

A couple months later I was discussing this with David Kobia, my colleague at Ushahidi, talking about how there are wide open opportunities like this in Kenya where there is a clear void that no one is filling. It’s not hard, it just takes focus on a simple platform that’s both web and mobile enabled, along with a way to bring in the analog side.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and David built a little site for this purpose over the weekend, called Pigia.me. A place for us to experiment with, and we did. We spent some time gathering classifieds from the shopping centers and the newspaper. We did some Facebook ads. It worked, we quickly got up to over 3,500 listings and traffic was increasing. Total investment 3 days coding and $300 in ads.

But we didn’t have the time. Ushahidi keeps us way to busy, as does the iHub.

Enter Dealfish

About 3 months ago Dealfish, the big classifieds site owned by MIH in South Africa, launched in Kenya. Simultaneously it launched in Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda and Ghana (English). And in Francophone Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Senegal, and the DRC. They scooped up well-known tech entrepreneur and blogger Moses Kemibaro from Dotsavvy to run East Africa’s operations, while Neil Schwartzman overseas all Sub-Saharan Africa for Dealfish and Stefan Magdalinski presides over Dealfish as well as Mocality and Kalahari for all but South Africa.

They’re now at approximately 12,000 listings (in Kenya), serving the major urban areas and have about 6000 “answers” per month (which is what they call it when a buyer tries to contact a seller). The top areas are auto, home and jobs – like most classified sites.

Until critical mass is reached, classifieds are something that you have to put a lot of energy towards on a constant and consistent basis. Thus Dealfish has chosen Kenya and Nigeria as their first focus-countries, where they have dedicated personnel.

MIH has deep pockets, and they’ve decided that there is a future in investing in digital arena in the Africa outside of South Africa. They came on strong with online ads by Google, Facebook, Inmobi, Admob and Buzzcity. Inmobi has given them the best return, with Google ads in second place. However, it’s the Dealfish team notes that the Inmobi traffic doesn’t have nearly the same intent to buy or sell as the Google traffic – it’s blind coming in.

Offline Dealfish used radio, in-store advertising, posters in malls and in club bathroom stalls. The form of advertising dictates the type of user, whether they use mobile phones or PC web. In the beginning mobile users were their predominant type, but now it’s split 50/50 between mobile and PC web users.

Dealfish is doing well, and will continue to do so, especially as they have enough financial backing to continue seeding the market. Their competition comes in the form of verticals that are specifically created for a niche market. In this case, autos with Cheki, jobs with Brighter Monday and homes with Property Kenya. And that’s just in Kenya, they’ll fight that same battle in the other markets as well.

Tackling Africa

The only other classifieds system that has made a dent in Africa is Kerawa, operated out of Cameroon. They have thousands of listings in quite a few countries. They’ve done this over the last 3 years, bootstrapped and growing organically.

However, there’s a danger in trying to go after everyone and everything. In the broad classified space there is only a single winner, no prizes for second place, except in niche areas. Whoever reaches critical mass first wins, and the rest can go home. It’s better to win in a couple countries than to lose in all.

Both Dealfish and Kerawa have to fight the very real issue of spam listings. Just letting anything to so as to get bigger numbers only decreases the value to the user. How customer service and clarity of use and value play out to the listing companies and people is where a lot of time and resources can be spent.

[Update: Google Trader launched in Ghana and Uganda to mixed success. As long as there was a lot of marketing put into the effort, they had a lot of listings, as soon as they stopped there was a big drop-off. It’s yet to be determined if Google Trader is a failure or success, or if Google is still putting any more effort into it.]

Urban then Rural

Finally, you have to start in the urban areas due to users, devices and general “mass”. However, if you think that’s enough, then you haven’t learned the lessons taught by the mobile operators. That is, urban is your anchor, but rural is your long tail, your reach.

Any attempt to get enough critical mass to make serious money off of traffic or transactions has to reach beyond the cities. The towns and rural areas are untapped and ripe for the approach. Phase 2 of this approach should look a lot like what I wrote about back in 2009, on how village billboards should be leveraged alongside the mobile phone shops in smaller communities.

InMobi and Mobile Advertising in Africa

India is watching Africa closely, especially after the big $10.7bn move by Bharti Airtel to take over Zain’s Africa operations. Yesterday Ankit Rawal, head of advertising for inMobi in Africa, spoke at the iHub. He spent a good amount of time explaining why Africa was so important to their growth strategy, and used a good bit of data from an InMobi research project to show why.

Ad Impressions

From their July 2010 statistics, Africa has over 2.8 billion mobile ad impressions available, an 18.5% growth from just one month before (June 2010). That’s an amazing figure, and amazing growth, by anyone’s standards. Only 16% of that inventory is on smartphones.

InMobi’s largest African markets, in order, are: South Africa, Egypt, Kenya, Sudan, Libya, Nigeria. There is a big difference between these countries and some of the others that we saw stats for. For instance, Mozambique, Tanzania, Angola and Namibia have only about 20-40 million impressions/month. There is a wide gap between Africa’s tech leaders and the rest of the continent.

Manufacturers

Continent-wide, the most popular manufacturer is Nokia at 61.3%, followed by Samsung at 21.8%, with SonyEricsson a distant third at 6.3%. Those aren’t especially surprising figures, but if you dig down into the country details provided for South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria, they differ.

  • In South Africa, it’s 38% each for Nokia and Samsung
  • In Kenya, it’s 66% Nokia and 18% Samsung
  • In Nigeria, it’s 78% Nokia and 9% SonyEricsson

Operating Systems

Important information for mobile app developers and businesses is which operating system to focus on. Nokia OS and Symbian lead, followed by RIM. No Android, iPhone or Windows Mobile mentioned, though there is a suspiciously large (37%) chunk of the pie for “other”.

Handsets

The actual devices that people are using that show mobile advertising is interesting as well. It’s largely Nokia, holding 7 of the top 10 spots, with Samsung carrying the other 3. The top device, is the moderately priced Nokia N70 is a popular, though unpretty, “do it all” phone.

Other Information

Not available in the qualitative research document provided by InMobi, but part of Ankit’s talk yesterday, were some other demographic statistics.

Male acceptance of mobile advertising in Africa is the highest in the world, when asked, “How comfortable are you with mobile advertising?”. African women came in second behind Asia on that same question. Women in South Africa were the clear outlier compared to Nigeria and Kenya, with only 45% comfortable with mobile ads.

Africa’s under 25 population has the highest comfort level with mobile ads in the world. 75% from this age range are okay with mobile ads, as opposed to 67% in Europe, 73% in the US and Asia.

South Africans are more interested in ads when top global brands appear as ads. The primary benefit of mobile ads that all consumers are looking for is “new information”.

Final Thoughts

Africa, as a whole is well positioned to see a huge growth in mobile advertising. This comes from a combination of consumer acceptance of mobile ads being the highest in the world, healthy support via increased data plan competition among telcos, growth in 3g and smartphone adoption, and mobile screen mindshare amongst users.

Quick Hits in the African Tech Space

Indian firm Bharti buys up Zain Africa
The biggest news in the African tech space is Bharti’s $10.7 billion purchase of Zain’s African operations, which operates mobile networks in 17 countries in Africa. Apparently, some believe that Africa’s potential makes Zain deal value fair. (Zain’s African countries: Burkina Faso, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambiaand Morocco.)

Google continues getting Africa on the map

Google Maps was launched in 30 Sub-Saharan African countries
. That’s an amazing asset for everyone to use, and it’s also an incredible testament to the number of users using their “My Maps” feature, as this is where this data comes from.

On the growth of tech hubs in Africa
Rebecca Wanjiku wrote an article on IDG about, “Tech labs move beyond corporations in sub-Saharan Africa“. She’s a member of the Nairobi iHub advisory group, and has more insight than most in this space.

South Africa’s Design Indaba
It’s happening right now in Cape Town (Feb 24 – 26, 2010). Great design, and great speakers, but I was really intrigued by their kids program.

Location based service launches in Nigeria
StarTrack is a new location based tracking service in Nigeria, Loy Okezie has a good overview of this new service from Starcomms.

Text2Fly: Flight Schedules by SMS in Nigeria

Timi Agama was frustrated with his experiences in trying to get information about flights in Nigeria. It just didn’t make sense that there was no electronic means to track flight schedules. About five years ago he set out on a path to create a mobile solution for the problem. Out of that came Text2Fly, a mobile service that let’s you search for flight schedules by sending an SMS.

Text2Fly Nigeria

“The simple task of finding the next available flight is an inefficient and labor intensive undertaking for the Nigerian business traveller. Nigerian airlines don’t operate call centers and the Internet is slow. So the business traveller must assign staff to search all airline web sites or even send them to the ticketing office through stifling traffic.”

How it Works

A user sends in a text message to +447786201082 with a simple command, like “From Lagos to Abuja on Monday at 8am”. In response, the system gathers the information about all of the flights in Nigeria that fit your requirements, and sends them back to you as an SMS message.

As Timi states, this is ” A Nigerian solution to a Nigerian problem”. Interestingly, it’s not only useful in Nigeria, and I could see this same application being used elsewhere, not just in Africa but in the developed world as well.

I’m curious as to why the service is only available via SMS. It seems that if you have the data, then it’s easy to make it web-accessible. The advantage there is that you also can start creating ways for people to purchase tickets and thereby have another revenue stream.

The Business Behind Text2Fly

Text2Fly QuoteIn terms of business model Text2Fly is paid for by premium SMS once it officially launches. It’s free right now though, so definitely worth testing out to see how much it helps in your daily life.

User numbers are still modest because the site and backend system was only flipped on 3 weeks ago. There has been very limited marketing to this point, but there is a plan to launch a real-world and digital campaign once the service is fully tested and stable.

When I asked Timi about how local Nigerians are taking to the product, he stated:

The reactions from people who have used the service has been far better than I could have imagined. One chap I spoke to on the phone enthused about how Text2Fly is not just for busy business people but for “everybody”. Another told me a story of how he showed it to some friends while they were having a drink and all 7 of them stored the Text2Fly number.

[Note: David Ajao has also done a review, worth reading as he’s a fellow Nigerian.]

My Favorite African Tech Blog Reads of the Week

This last week has seen a higher than average number of great technology blog pieces by a number of people. Here are my favorites.

Bankelele writes about Professor Calestous Juma with a review of a talk that he gave on how Africa can use technological innovation to stimulate economic recovery, spur economic growth and spread prosperity.

Aptivate gave us their Top 10 Rules for Designing Low-Bandwidth Websites. This is a goldmine, every web designer in Africa should print this out and hang it above their monitor.

Jon Gosier gave us a Comparison between On- and Off-network GSM Rates in Nigeria. Proving that, “with the exception of Etisalat, it’s quite clear that it’s cheaper to own four cell phones than one [in Nigeria].” (I hope this data makes its way to African Signals)

Ethan writes about Mike Best and his team’s work in post-conflict Liberia around digital storytelling.

South Africa’s popular mobile social networking application, Mxit, is now at 14 million users. “MXit users currently send approximately 35,000 messages per second during peak times and visit the system more than 20 million times per day.” Wow!

Bill does a review of Ndiyo, the thin-client computing solution for Africa. Specifically, on how Ndiyo “provides an alternative to traditional Western notions of how technologies should be deployed, used and paid for in developing countries”.

Traffic Updates by SMS in Nigeria

eNowNow is a service in Nigeria where anyone with a mobile phone can sign up to receive updates on traffic conditions in different areas around Lagos.

How it Works

Traffic via SMS in Lagos Nigeria - mapArmed with a mobile phone, a team of 4-6 motorcyclists ride to different, pre-designate parts of the city. They take pictures of the current traffic conditions and MMS that image to the central office. That image is then geolocated and given a score of “slow”, “moving” or “free”. Anyone who has signed up for SMS or email alerts is then sent a message with the traffic update.

Challenges

I asked Simon, one of the people putting the service into action, what some of their challenges are. His reply:

“Collecting information in this way, although not that technical (lots of people have said why not use stationary webcams it would be technically superior), is turning out to be more difficult than we expected. Finding people who can grasp the concept behind the service, ride well through the crazy Lagos traffic, and are reliable has been tricky, added to that we’ve had lots of issues around harassment and even arrests from the police (many police officers apparently believe you need special police permission to take photos of traffic) and just recently the weather has been in our way as the rainy season has just started in Lagos making operations more difficult and a few phones have been dropped in puddles! “

The business side

eNowNow doesn’t see much value in charging premium SMS rates for their services. They believe margins are low, and they don’t think the uptake would be high enough amongst their target market to make it work. Instead, they have plans to subsidize the service with revenues from licensing traffic information to Sat Nav providers and logistics companies.

“In Nigeria the networks will take anything between 40 and 75% of a premium SMS’s cost to a subscriber for themselves (pull or push) leaving you a tiny margin for profitability and driving the industry standard (and therefore what the networks will allow you) per SMS cost higher. Most people think that traffic only affects those in cars and they can therefore afford to pay for a service, but most of Lagos’ population aren’t in that bracket and those on public transport still have choices about which buses they take, which routes and what time they leave work.”

Thoughts and ideas

Maybe it’s because I’m a motorcycle fan, or maybe it’s because I have a deeply ingrained detestation for being stuck in traffic in Africa’s mega cities, but this application hits the sweet spot for me. I’ve been wanting just this type of thing in Nairobi for a long time…

One additional idea, to make this even more dynamic, and spread it over the whole city is to create a way for ordinary drivers to text into the system when they come across a new or growing traffic problem. I imagine that Lagos has areas with traffic that is not on the pre-designated points that eNowNow operates in currently.

This is a classic locally grown tech initiative, and I hope that they can pull it off. If so, it can definitely be replicated in other major metro markets across the continent.

Nigeria – W.Afri.Tel 2009

Massive Africa Update on Google Maps

The Map-the-World and Map-Maker teams at Google have been making some major, and much needed, additions for Africa. With a large data push yesterday, Google Maps has one of the most impressive sets of maps on Africa that you can find.

There are now 27 more African countries that now have detailed maps, including:

Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Guinea, Gambia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Reunion, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Togo.

Comparing countries

What I wanted to do was compare old map tiles with new ones, but I didn’t have any screenshots to do that with. Instead I did a quick comparison of a few countries – those that were just announced vs ones that weren’t on the list.

A good example of this is found when comparing Mali to Burkina Faso in West Africa. There are significantly more town names in Burkina Faso, and all the roads either have names or numbers. In Mali, which hasn’t been done yet, there are some major roads outlined, few towns are named, and no minor roads to speak of.

Mali vs Burkina Faso

Also of interest, you’ll notice how the roads that should intersect at the borders, do not.

Here’s another interesting view of West Africa. You can clearly see that there has been a lot of data added for all of these countries, except for Liberia and Mali.

Google Maps in West Africa - May 2009

One other interesting map that I came across was of Mogadishu, Somalia. It appears that there either are no street names, or that the Google team working on this didn’t know what they were:

Mogadishu, Somalia - no road names

Quick Hits Around African Tech

I’m thoroughly enjoying Dambisa Moyo’s “Dead Aid” book. Buy it, has great food for thought, and numbers to back it up.

The New York Times article on big web content companies lack of profitability in places like Africa.

We’re seeing a new trend of microblogging platforms emerge across Africa. Most recently in the Congo with Akouaba, but also in Nigeria with Naijapulse and South Africa’s Gatorpeeps.

Matt Berg writes about the “Off-grid solar calculator” in North Africa.

Mobility Nigeria points out that Nigeria displaces Germany in the Opera Mini top 10 list.

Bankelele breaks down some of mobile payment tool M-Pesa’s strengths and weaknesses in Kenya.

We’ve announced Ushahidi’s Beta stage, and another round of funding.

APC talks about the broadband rollout issues and a movement to change policy in South Africa.

Nigeria – Barcamp Nigeria

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