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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Tag: web (page 1 of 5)

The “Mobile Web” as text and voice

The mobile web revolution has already spread around the world. The phase of it that we live in is where we see the internet hitting critical mass based on the availability of web connectivity on mobile devices. Data is widely available, and the costs continue to decrease at an alarming rate. We’re seeing the disruption this is causing already, from businesses to consumers, and within the political structures of entire countries.

THE MOBILE WEB from Duniamedia on Vimeo.

Dunia Media, out of Switzerland, has put together a good video showcasing this change.

Interestingly enough, this video showcases iCow and M-Farm, both providing agricultural data to farmers, not in a browser, but as text or voice messages. One could think the title to be a tad misleading, as the “mobile web” term is largely applied to web interaction on a browser on a phone.

What I like about this take though is this; the internet allows for a paradigm that doesn’t care what device you have, whether PC or phone, as long as you have a database and a channel you’re in the game. As long as the device has some type of text or voice communication it is suddenly a read/write platform.

What we’re seeing in applications coming from Africa is a way to stretch the use-case of “old” messaging technology like SMS, USSD or voice into new ways of data transfer that challenge Western conceptions of what the internet is.

Broadening the Base of the Startup Pyramid

While in London at the RGS event I spoke about a different way that I’ve been trying to explain the startup and successful ecosystem needed in places like Africa. Specifically, in the major technology hubs for the continent, these are cities; Nairobi, Jo’burg, Accra, Lagos and Cairo. There seems to be enough funding available for SMEs. How do we get more of them?

It goes something like this.

We have a few good success stories in any one of these cities. There are a handful of great tech companies and organizations that have “made it”. This can be seen as a success in innovation or in business (or in both). Everyone wants to be at the tip of this, and these are the examples we hear of at international conferences and read about in the media.

In the middle we have everyone else, the guys who are still slugging away. They have some clients and revenue streams, but they’re not at the top (yet).

At the bottom, that’s what we deal with in places like the iHub and m:lab. These are those scrappy startups that might or might not have any right being in the place. They’re risky, probably don’t have a solid business model yet, and only a few of them will graduate into the SME space above them.

What to do?

To make the tip of the pyramid bigger, to have more success stories in the tech space, there is only one option: you have to make the base of the pyramid broader.

If your job is to see more innovative new tech companies come out of Africa, the recipe is quite simple:

  • Invest seed funds into local tech entrepreneurs.

(that’s my only bullet point, it’s that simple)

The Future… is Here! [Pivot 25 Video]

PIVOT25: East Africa’s Biggest Mobile Tech Event from Pivot25 Conference on Vimeo.

The next big thing in African Tech has arrived. Pivot 25 is here! The region’s top 25 mobile tech startups pitch against each other June 14-15 in Nairobi, Kenya at the Ole Sereni Hotel.

Go to pivot25.com for tickets and info.

Video by The ARK

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.)

IxDA and Designers as Explorers

I get culture shock every once in a while, and it’s not the normal type where you’re coming to a new country and everything is completely different than your own country. This is more subtle, I’m at a conference with a lot of people who look and sound like me, but when you actually listen to their conversation you realize that they define themselves and the world in a way just slightly different than you do. That’s what happened to me over the last 3 days here in Boulder, Colorado at the IxDA 2011 – the big Interaction Design Association annual conference. I’m surrounded by 600+ designers, people who think deeply about why you and I do things, and ways to make us do it better, differently or for more money.

Sketch by @AlainaRachelle

Africa’s Digital Design Constraints

I was fortunate enough to meet Jon Kolko, one of the organizers, at PopTech a couple years ago, leading to this invite. My role was to talk as a practitioner, and I covered everything from AfriGadget to Maker Faire Africa and Ushahidi. I then delved into the constraints around design and building in the African tech space, by breaking down the three main areas that I see:

  • Bandwidth
  • Mobiles
  • Culture

Specifically, I covered how bandwidth has made it difficult for people to create new sites and services, but more importantly, how the uptake of those is limited by consumer use of the internet due to costs and speeds. This is changing though, as tracked and evidenced by the lowering data costs and increased bandwidth being piped into the continent each year.

I also covered the swiftly blurring lines between Mobile and web. How due to the fact that mobiles are the primary device for Africans and usually the first device that people have a meaningful interaction with the internet on, is creating a different type of user. How the entrepreneurs in Africa’s web space are thinking of it from a mobile context and how they build services to address their audience. Here I got into the argument of diffusion of internet penetration via the big international players like Facebook and Google through mobiles, which then open up infrastructure and cultural use making it more accessible to local startups.

Finally, I talked about culture. How this culture of mobile first plays out. Where the phone number trumps the email address on user signup, and where transactions happen due to that norm. It’s here that I also got to bring up one of my favorite people, Jepchumba, the creator of African Digital Art. She is creating a community, and a movement, to get African designers talking to each other and showcasing their work to the world – breaking down the stereotypes and building up new personalities across the continent.

Jepchumba helped me come up with some of the content behind my talk due to running her African web design survey last week (it’s still open). There’s a lot of information in that survey, much of which is still being gathered. As an example though, is this chart showing the percentage of African web designers who are self-taught as opposed to having a formal education. I wonder if this is normal globally?

Designers as Explorers

Getting back to my starting point. Sometimes this culture shock leads to great conversations, and it allows me to see the world that I live and work in a slightly different way.

Erin Moore is a designer and a storyteller, usually through video and blogging (see her newest project on Kickstarter). She introduced me to this terminology of “designers as explorers” – something that might be very apparent to the IxD field, but foreign to me. It’s a phrase that fits. Where we see designers as a new generation of what we thought of as National Geographic explorers a century ago. They’re best embodied by the Jan Chipchases of the world, who spend a great deal of time watching, listening and understanding how design interactions work, and then translating those discoveries to the rest of the world.

It fits because I have a hard time with a lot of the well-intentioned design community thinking that they can parachute into places like Africa, usually with a solution already in mind, and change the world. There is a place for designers in Africa, but the greatest value lies in recognizing the expertise at the local level, the inventiveness and ingenuity already there, and rubbing shoulders with them in a way that both gain value and maybe even build something new.

Ana Domb is another of the unique people that I met here at IxDA, she’s studied at MIT and has a good steeping in both digital technology, mixed with a focus on media and understanding fans (the people kind). It was this background that took her to Brazil (she’s Chilean) to study Technobregas – a crazy hodgepodge of fans, artists, sponsors and DJs all banding together to create their own music reality, outside of the traditional music industry’s grasp. It takes someone with a distinct design focus and understanding of how social interactions happen to be able to translate that to someone like me (paper here).

We need to see more of this. Where American designers do parachute in, but not as problem solvers, instead as explorers. Where their expertise rubs off on those they meet, and those they meet rub off on them. Both benefit. Equally, we need to see more African designers going abroad and using their expertise in shaping the way the Western world uses technology and understands community. Design interactions go both ways.

Pay Attention to the Mobile Web