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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

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A Mobile Payment Trifecta in Kenya

Kenya is quickly gaining a competitive advantage in the mobile payments space. Led by mobile operator giant Safaricom with their Mpesa product, the market locally sees huge value in mobile money transactions. Add to that a regulatory system that is relaxed enough for innovation to be encouraged, and you have a great space for interesting things to happen.

Pay.Zunguka

The team at Symbiotic always have more than one iron in the fire. I was surprised by their most recent release of a new product called Pay.Zunguka last week. Simply put, it’s a payment gateway and aggregator, allowing merchants, developers and content providers a way to monetize their work with the public.

There are two sources of inspiration in Pay.Zunguka (guys, we need to talk about names at some point…), that is the ability for people to utilize international online payment methods like PayPal and Google Checkout, but more importantly that users here in Kenya can do it all without a credit card, only using their phones. That’s a big deal, and it’s a nod towards recognizing that credit cards aren’t necessary, we can bypass that mess.

Mbugua Njihia, CEO of Symbiotic, tells me that their plan is to first integrate with content providers and create an easy-to-use micropayment space, charging 3% per transaction. This will be followed by a partnership campaign to work with larger organizations who don’t have an efficient payment platform for consumers.

PesaPal

PesaPal I’ve written about before. It’s a mobile payment gateway as well, but one with a specific focus online. Liko and team have made great headway recently, but not just in the technology, which is critical. They’ve made headway in some other important areas, funding and marketing.

We’ve talked about the need for local investors to buy into local technology startups. When that doesn’t happen, the international ones swoop in and take advantage of local investor myopia. In this case, PesaPal is receiving a healthy seed capital investment for scaling and marketing. With cash flow happening right now, it’s a good time to invest, and I’m glad to see someone doing so with this team.

I talked to Liko yesterday about this. Their strategy has shifted somewhat since last year, instead of just focusing on web merchants, the PesaPal team is working on relationships with educational institutions and educational book suppliers to make parents lives easier when their child starts the school year. The parent can now pay their child’s school fees using Mpesa or Zap, and then are directly linked to the list of that year’s books with the option to buy them too, and have them delivered to the school for their child’s first day. Brilliant!

This is the kind of fresh thinking that is great to see coming from tech startups: they’re not thinking or selling the tech, they’re selling a solution to a problem.

Zynde

Zynde is a new player in the space, but you’ll start to see a pattern here when you jump over to their website. Because none of the large companies are addressing the very real need for agnostic payment gateways the market is filling in that gap for them.

A quick email chat with David Kagiri of Zynde gave me more insight into their focus behind the service:

“My main driver was that new technologies existed that could enable me deliver cost effective solutions. After interaction with owners of small businesses I realized that most don’t keep track of their business finances and the cost of the available off shelf software that would help them with that was beyond their reach. I came up with a simple solution that uses the SaaS (software as a service) model so that I could deliver cost-effective solutions to them and an API that will enable creative developers to extend it to multiple mobile platforms and reach the masses.”

Zynde will have to prove themselves in what is quickly turning out to be a highly competitive space with competent players.

Mocality: Mobile Business Listings for Africa

It’s not often that you hear of a tech startup from South Africa who chooses to build and deploy their product to Kenya first. In fact, I’ve never heard of such a thing. However, that is just what is happening with Mocality, a mobile and web-based business listings and directory application built for Africa.

Mocality’s job: create a digital platform that makes it easy for business owners to promote and expand their businesses in Africa.

“As a business owner, you get free SMS, a contact list, a free mobile website and a free mobile business card.”

Mocality represents this change in the paradigm that we’ve seen coming on for years in Africa. An application built agnostic to the client platform (mobile phone or PC), where data is fed into whatever you use in a meaningful way. Where the mobile usage is just as rich as the PC use.

In fact, they’ve studied usage of mobile phones on their system and have seen the usage of smartphones to be so negligible as to not matter. As CEO Stefan Magdalinski says, “This is the Mocality reality: RIM, Android, Apple are 2% of usage.”

About the Team

Successful startups generally have great leaders, Mocality has that. Stefan Magdalinski (@smagdali) is a seasoned web veteran and entrepreneur, co-founder of Moo.com and an early entrant into the programming space in England in the mid-90’s, and just recently relocating to South Africa for Mocality. They have plenty of funding, from MIH, a subsidiary of Naspers Group (who has been eying Kenya with recent forays such as Kalahari and Haiya).

I’ve met with Stefan in Kenya and South Africa, and I’ve also had the chance to meet some of the members of his team here in Nairobi. The impression that I’m left with is that this is a serious startup, with plenty of funding and a great vision and a strategy put in place to pull it off.

How it Works

Mocality is built for Kenyan businesses that don’t have enough money (or value to gain) to advertise in a print directory.

Again, a paradigm shift. They’re saying that they don’t care about the big end of the power law of distribution (the big companies), only the longtail (small, marginalized businesses). This is apparent in the images below of their typical user:

  • SMS, WAP & Web tools (now J2Me, iPhone)
  • Businesses can self list
  • Geo-coding All business locations
  • Map view of business
  • Business toolkit:
    1. Add customers & suppliers
    2. Send bulk messages (400 free SMS monthly) (but with anti-spam controls)
    3. Send mobile business card
    4. Add details (e.g. Menus, Special Offers)
  • Website, google optimised (white hat only)

Important to business owners in this segment is that the platform is free. Services will be added to the platform over time that business owners can pay for, but currently the only cost to them is data or SMS usage on their own mobile phone to access Mocality.

Scaling using the Crowd

Initially, the Mocality team walked all over Nairobi getting businesses to put their listings on the platform. They were successful, and in about 6 months of hard work were able to get approximately 11,000 businesses listed. That’s good, but barely puts a dent in the number of companies operating in this city.

The team then launched a crowdsourcing option, where they experimented with allowing anyone in Nairobi to add their own (and other’s) businesses to Mocality, and they got paid a bounty to do so. Within the last 6 weeks they have as many listings entered as the previous 6 months. If you live in Nairobi and want to become an agent, you need a WAP-enabled cameraphone and only need to visit http://www.mocality.com/money.

That’s impressive, but the impact is even more apparent when you look at the visualization:

If you have a business in Nairobi, you can get your listing onto it by visiting www.mocality.com email to info@mocality.co.ke or SMS callme to 2202 from within Kenya.

Quick Hits Around African Tech

South African, Matthew Buckland, has launched Memeburn a site that tracks emerging technology trends and has opinion pieces by key influencers.

Amheric/Ethiopic translations have been launched within Google’s applications.

Freedom Fone, a free and open source IVR (interactive voice response) system, which started out of Zimbabwe, has now launched. You can download v1.5 now.

Afrinnovator has launched a news aggregator for African tech news.

I was interviewed by CNBC about the iHub and Ushahidi.

Panacea, a South African mobile phone company has the first (legit) bridge between Africa and Paypal live on the continent. Finally, at least one country is able to send/receive payments via PayPal.

Kahenya, from Virn, is launching a new ad platform, called Metro, that distributes ads to all of their sites and affiliate sites. They anticipate to start Web Marketing Campaigns from as little as 500 Kenya shillings (

Mobile Web East Africa – Stream

[I probably won’t be able to keep this up all day, but I’ll try to blog/stream what’s happening here at Mobile Web East Africa as best I can. Refresh for updates]

It’s day one of the Mobile Web East Africa conference in Nairobi. This is a new conference, started up in South Africa to great success, and now spreading to other regions of the continent.

Paul Kukubo of the ICT Board

Paul Kukubo, of the Kenya ICT Board, is talking about the future of tech in Kenya, and how the government’s aim is to be a major hub for technology in the region. Explaining how the changes in the industry are brought into context for the government’s vision 2030. He talks about mobile payments, digitizing of government documents and processes, developing software standards and the growing tech community within Nairobi.

Paul continues with mentioning how their approach is to influence policy formulation, intellectual property, data protection, linkages to venture capital and basically catalyzing growth in the ICT sector between government, the public and business.

Rick Joubert of Yonder Media

Rick Joubert, from Yonder Media, “the mobile phone is the most ubiquitous consumer device in the world.” He goes on to talk about how the phone is now even more spread through South Africa than radios. There are 2x as many phones as TV sets. There are 6x more mobile phone subscribers than internet users (in South Africa).

Rick defines the Mobile Web this way:

  • Tier 1: The WAP internet
  • Tier 2: The mobile web application internet
  • Tier 3: Web browsing on phone

**Interruption**
PS Ndemo, who I know and like, is going to give a short address. This isn’t cool, as he’s interrupting Rick Joubert mid-talk (and a very interesting one too). Case-in-point for why government needs to get out of the way more than anything else in the technology field… [Yes, I note that this is probably the American viewpoint on equality coming out].

PS Ndemo is talking through how there were 3.5 million internet users in Kenya last year. Now, with the cost of laptops dropping, we now see 500 laptops sold per day (there were only 20k per year sold before).

Kenya also has the digital villages project (Pasha) with the World Bank is seeing long lines of individuals in far off places coming in to try the internet, get on Skype and figure out how to set up email and other services.

PS Ndemo, ever the gracious person, has at least apologized for the interruption and made amends to the speaker and the conference as a whole. There’s a reason I like him… 🙂

**Back to our scheduled program**

“The Apple iPhone is the number one handset on every continent in the world, except… Africa”. The Nokia 3110 and Samsung E250 are the two biggest phones on the continent. The fact of the matter is, the real money is being made in the inexpensive DVD/Nollywood areas, not in the mobile web yet. Services that play to USSD, Voice and SMS are where the real opportunities lie.

Driving forces:

  • Growth in data networks and coverage
  • Mobile data access charges
  • Local content
  • Better quality handsets shipping at the cheapest possible price
  • Mobile wallets, mobile commerce, mobile banking

Business models and monetization routes:

  • Commerce
  • Transactions and financial institutions
  • Content
  • Advertising

Rick projects that the “size of the prize” in mobile advertising is approximately $8 billion per year in Africa.

Rick finishes showing a video from LynxEffect on how consumers see mobile web, the seductive side of it.

Eric Cantor of AppLab Uganda & Grameen Foundation

I wrote about AppLab and their work with MTN and Google last year. Eric wants to talk about a critical look at a critical space, the 95% of the African population that doesn’t own a smartphone.

(Get the full presentation of Eric Cantor’s slides as a PDF)

“There are more people having conferences and running too many pilots around the use of social mobile work than there is real practical applications and scaling of the products in the market.”

Technology: Be Patient
SMS is not the only way. It’s very challenging and very expensive to work with SMS. One way to adjust this focus is into voice – people like people, and want to talk with each other.

Handsets need to evolve. Nokia 1100 vs Java 1680 ($20 vs $60) – we’re waiting on the $40 smartphone.

Eric reminds us that we need to get back to the Four-Ps of marketing. We can’t forget user experience, the services might be serious, but still need to be fun to use. At the AppLab they don’t believe what they hear (because everyone says “yes, this product will be great in our market”). They try to dig deeper, learned from Google, on what customers really want and see what people are really using.

Question time

I’ve asked the question for Eric Cantor about why we’re not seeing very simple data hooks built into some of the USSD and SMS applications running in Uganda. (more on this here: “Should we be building SMS or internet services for Africa?“). Eric agrees that there is a lot of upside in that space, and that they’re trying to push more towards the data channel, but until we start seeing more data-enabled handsets in ordinary people’s hands out in the villages, it’s just not a main priority yet.

Robert Alai asks what is driving advertising growth in South Africa? Is it the large companies, or smaller organizations?
Rick responds saying that it’s large companies trying to reach their customers, from banks to Coca Cola and everyone in between. Businesses build grow in this space to find solutions for that, and that’s primarily small innovative companies (like his own), small nimble startups.

Agatha Gikonda of Nokia East Africa talks about the Ovi Store and the opportunities for local developers to create applications and put them on the store to make money.

Peter Arina of Safaricom

What are we going to do to drive interent usage in Kenya? Some stats:

Mobile users are estitmated at 19.05m subscribers. Kenya population estimated at 40m with 22m being the addressable market (15yo or older).

70% of mobile data users spend less than 20ksh on a monthly basis. Industry data enabled handsets estimated at 5m or 26% of GSM users. Cost of a 3G handset is 3x higher than that of a non-data enabled handset. Computer prices are way too high compared to the disposable income of majority of Kenyans.

“The cost of devices that access the internet is the biggest barrier to entry for ordinary Kenyans.”

Cost of broadband (price) is prohibitive due to infrastructure investment.

Local content – the most popular sites accessed on the Safaricom network is Facebook and YouTube. Limited content which is highly priced, is also a barrier locally. There’s a need for high quality data enabled handsets to get good experience.

Conclusion
Mobile data users estimated to reach 10m in the next five years subject to availability of affordable devices, increase awareness, local content development and drop in data prices. Safaricom is trying to work directly with the manufacturers to get more data-enabled devices into normal Kenyan’s hands.

There is a need for more local content that is relevant at affordable rates. Need for reduction in frequency costs, a creation of daily usage habits among users and a need for the government to remove VAT on modems.

Questions
@Kahenya is asking a question. Safaricom is trying to become more affordable, it’s still the most expensive network in Kenya. It’s still has no fixed rate for the mobile data network access. It doesn’t work for small and medium sized business, is Safaricom doing anything to change this?

Peter Arina says they are trying to be cautious. They’re trying to focus on quality (bull$%@& as they have the worst network connectivity in Kenya). He says that they have plans to reduce the cost of data as well, but he has no details on it.

The Safaricom rep says that their main goal is to provide services to the Wananchi (the ordinary/mass Kenyan). The question remains then, why is the cost so high for all of their services?

Paul Kukubo asks when Safaricom will open up their network for value added services for developers and other companies. He’s wondering why the revenue share is so high here (currently if you partner with Safaricom, they’ll take about 60% of revenues), meanwhile elsewhere in the world, like Japan, give 70% to the developer.

Paul asks about the issue with the networks taking advantage of the developers who are out there who come to them with ideas and new products.

The Safaricom rep states that this is not the case any longer. They partner with MobilePlanet and Cellulant (as examples, but it’s a poor one because they’re established companies now). He says that at first they start off with a big chunk of the revenues, but as the product does better, then the developer will get more of the share.

Basically, we get no straight answers from Safaricom and only promises of better things in the future with no details.

Jose Henriques, Executive Head: Online Product Management, Vodacom South Africa

6.65% of the African population currently uses PC internet. The top ten countries make up 85% of that.

Some more stats:

  • Africa represents 15% of the world population, but only 3.9″% of the world’s PC internet usage.
  • Africa’s PC Internet users have increased by 1359% from 2000 to 2009.
  • The global service revenue generated from subscriptions to mobile internet access are forecasted by Informa Telecoms & Media to rise from $57 billion in 2008 to $120 billion in 2013.
  • Mobile ad revenue is estimated to be at $2 billion by 2014. Total value of marketing spend on mobile to be around $6 billion.
  • Mobile subscription rose from 54 million to almost 350 million between 2003 and 2008.
  • On average there are 60% mobile penetration in the world. In developing countries the figure stands at 48% , which is 8x bigger than in 2000.
  • Lack of fixed-line access will drive huge mobile internet usage and revenues.
  • Vodacom generates 49 million ad impressions per month in South Africa (big opportunity).

(Full presentation by Jose Henriques from Vodacom South Africa)

Questions
What has been defined as a smartphone, is not what we define one as today. How would you define it?
Cheapest data enabled devices are about 2000Ksh in Kenya. Safaricom thinks that these are smartphones.

Mpesa… Why is Safaricom unable to cooperate with and provide third-party access (opening their APIs) to developers in Kenya for Mpesa?

The Safaricom rep says that they are willing to do this, and that they’re hungry for people to come in with ideas and products. No specifics given on this. @TMSruge, the moderator, asks her to provide details on how they are actively trying to seek out and help grow this as there is no API or SDK.

@wanjiku says she’s heard Safaricom saying that they have a tendency to do well with big companies, but holding smaller company money for 3-4 months, hurting their cash flow.

Steve Vosloo asks what types of local content are people really willing to pay for?
The Safaricom rep is out of touch… she states that, “no one is willing to pay anything for mobile content”. This is bunk.

Rick Joubert comes in to state facts on how much money there is being made in South Africa in mobile content, $540 million is the real number just in SA. It’s not whether people will pay or not, it’s whether they find value in local content.

A question was asked of Safaricom, why they don’t open up the ability for third-party service providers to bill consumers? The answer by Safaricom is that they are. (I can’t confirm this)

We have Zap, Mobile Pay, Mpesa, etc… when are we going to have an agnostic system to send/receive money? by @kahenya

MTN rep says to come to Uganda to see this working. It’s there working on the MTN system. It’s a serious issue of not having your payment system to go beyond your own network.

Mpesa is a wall gardened. Kahenya and Teddy Ruge ask when there will be a need to NOT walk around with 3 handsets to send money within each one.

Safaricom states that they can already do this within their system. They lay the blame at the regulators feet for why it hasn’t happened.

**Lunch**

Brett StClair of AdMob

Brett starts by asking, “what is mobile internet?” It’s a website that is built for mobile handsets. Admob puts banner advertisement on these sites. They server 12-14 billion advertisements into this network each month. The man on the street can earn revenues start advertising today. There’s a 60% payout to publishers.

Have access to 53 countries in Africa. Monthly ads serves is 750 million in Africa alone.

African Mobile Web currently has South Africa, Nigeria, Libya, Egypt and Kenya as the top 5. Data prices do have a huge effect on the advertising revenues available in Africa.

Nokia 3110c is the most pervasive phone in the market (3.8%), Samsung E250 is at 3.7% penetration. Top smartphones are the Nokia N70 at 10.8% and then Nokia 6300 at 10.3% and then the iPhone at 8.2%.

Top reasons why South Africa is working:

  • 5 million fixed line internet vs 10 million mobile internet users
  • Strong operator billing infrastructure
  • However, mobile money is not mature yet
  • Early adoption by premium traditional publishers
  • consumers traditionally have had a fast adoption rate
  • Due to vast competition for impressions average CPC pricing grew from $0.03 to $0.27 in a year.

Is Africa next? The rest of the world thinks it is, but we need to get the local people to understand this.

Cheapest inventory in the world is in Africa… global accesss average is $0.03, in Africa it’s at $0.01. Local contet providers will benefit as they understand the local African consumers.

Key to making this work:

  1. 3g network coverage
  2. Cheap data pricing
  3. GPRS enabled handset penetration

What are the opportunities in Africa?
Strong tend to follow the West and South Africa. Paid for content, reliant on operator billing. Free content, which is ad funded. The top publisher types are communities, portals and downloads. The top categories are music, religion (15%), games and brands.

African traffic is made of 54% Nokia handsets, then 18% Samsung handsets. iPhone requests make up 18 million impressions in Africa.

Internet & Mobile Stats: Africa Grows Fastest in the World (2009)

Each year the International Telecommunications Union puts out statistics on the state of mobile and internet data around the world. What I’m interested in is their “Information Society Statistical Profiles 2009 – Africa” report, put out just this week. Here are some key takeaways, but you should really go download the full report for yourself.

A decade of ICT penetration in Africa

“By the end of 2008, Africa had 246 million mobile subscriptions and mobile penetration has risen from just five per cent in 2003 to well over 30 per cent today. The high ratio of mobile cellular subscriptions to fixed telephone lines and the high mobile cellular growth rate suggest that Africa has taken the lead in the shift from fixed to mobile telephony, a trend that can be observed worldwide. The number of Internet users has also grown faster than in other regions.”

ICT penetration rates in Africa over the last 10 years

Despite this growth rate, penetration is far below the rest of the world. As the report states, “Less than 5% of Africans use the Internet, and fixed and mobile broadband penetration levels are negligible.” The global average is 23% internet penetration. This is due mainly to cost, but also to coverage over a very large continent that lacks population density outside of major cities.

Not all of Africa is created equal

If you’re a company trying to make money off of providing services or products to mobile phone users in Africa, you have to think strategically. You can see from the chart below that the countries you should focus on first are Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania and Côte d’Ivoire.

Mobile subscriptions by country in Africa

This holds true for the internet as well. You’ll note that many of the top countries for mobile penetration are also countries with a strong internet growth rate.

Internet growth rate by country in Africa

“According to a recent household survey conducted by Research ICT Africa, the main location of Internet use in such countries as Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania and Zambia is the cyber/Internet café.”

Leapfrogging… with a catch

Many reports you read will sing the praises of the mobile networks and how the leapfrogging of landlines has helped Africa. That’s true, and I’m one of those people. However, it comes with a catch, and that catch is that the lack of landlines in Africa means that it’s a lot harder to get fixed-line broadband penetration, whether ADSL or otherwise. This keeps prices high and primarily availability is only in urban areas.

This gives the mobile operators a significant advantage in Africa, and it’s the reason why 3G (mobile broadband) technology is leading the way and why most of the growth will be through the mobile networks.

Fixed Broadband Growth in Africa

To put it in real numbers. By the end of 2008 there were only 635,000 fixed-line broadband subscribers in all of Africa, representing 0.1% of the population, whereas the world average is 6%. Mobile broadband sees 7 million subscribers with a penetration representing 0.9% of the population, again 6% being the global average.

In Summary

This report is an absolute gold mine of valuable data on internet and mobile phone usage, penetration and growth rates in Africa. I could go on with more graphs and thoughts on each section, but you should do yourself a favor and download the free copy and read it.

Finally, some last charts showing mobile cellular subscriptions, mobile broadband and internet subscriptions by country in Africa:

Internet users by country in Africa

Mobile subscribers and mobile broadband by country in Africa

3G Internet as Backup

One of the products of Seacom’s undersea cable reaching East Africa is that we’re now getting faster internet, and more of it, in Nairobi (note, I didn’t say cheaper). For many, it means coming up with a plan for backup internet is plausible and it’s actually quite easy. Though more expensive than an ethernet connection, the mobile carrier’s with 3G internet access work well for this. Plus, they have the added advantage that you can take the modem with you and have mobile connectivity anywhere.

This time, I wanted to get a router that I could connect my Safaricom (or other) 3G dongle into and provide internet for more than one device and backup for my other “main” connection. With this thought in mind, a couple weeks ago I picked up a Cradlepoint MBR1000 router due to it’s ability to accept 3G modems, whether USB, ExpressCard or phone.

Cradlepoint MBR1000 and Safaricom Huawei 3g modem

It’s interesting to note that Cradlepoint also have a battery operated version for those really on the go, making it a completely wireless hotspot in your pocket. You can read more about this in a case study [PDF} where some university students from Canada used this in conjunction with Safaricom 3G modems and the OLPC while upcountry.

The only tricky part is knowing what settings to put into the router’s setup area in order to activate the modem. Below is all you need to know to make a Cradlepoint MBR1000 work in Kenya with Safaricom:

Settings for a Safaricom 3G modem on a Cradlepoint MBR1000 router

Will this work with Zain and Orange? I’m not sure yet, but I’d tend to think that it should. I’m using the Huawei e160 modem for Safaricom, and Zain uses the Huawei e220, which is also listed under Cradlepoint’s generic UMTS/GSM devices.

African Connectivity Visualized

Jon Gosier’s Appfrica Labs has put together an amazing infographic on internet connectivity in Africa. Amazing work!

Infostate of Africa 2009

“The African continent is rapidly changing. In the next two years 2 billion dollars will bring 12 terabits of connectivity to the continent. Will africa become the world’s newest outsourcing hub? Will it foster it’s own tech and startup culture? The image above explores the ‘infostate’ of Africa in 2009.”
(Read More)

Flickr set here
Full-resolution version here
Buy it in print here

When do You Need Funding?

I’ve spent the last couple days in scenic Salzburg, Austria with 20 other people from both traditional journalism and new media backgrounds. Our goal: discuss strategies for more effective engagement and investment in “tomorrow’s media“. There are a mixture of organizations in the room, some established and others start-ups, like myself representing Ushahidi.

One of the questions posed, and which I’ve been ruminating on, is “when do you need funding?” (At this particular meeting, we’re talking grants primarily, but this applies to traditional seed and VC funding as well.)

Invest in Doers not Talkers

972816_tape_measureI don’t think it’s as early as most people think. There are a lot of people out there who claim they need funds in order to build a product. I disagree. Your first job is to build it. It might be in your nights and weekends, but that’s to be expected.

Yes, at a certain level you need funding that allows you to live, feed yourself and grow a business, but that’s not until you actually have something to show. Why would you expect someone to pay you money for a good idea? There are good ideas everywhere, but few examples of great execution upon these ideas.

A great presentation, Powerpoint or speech will get you a long way, and the ability to communicate is essential in both getting funding and getting user adoption or partners to work with you. However, nothing sells a good idea like a working product.

Whether it’s building a prototype, like we did with Ushahidi in Kenya, or a couple guys in a garage creating a new search algorithm and having to shop the product of that research around before they find investors, it’s too be expected that the work comes first, the funds second.

Growing

When is funding needed then? It’s needed when you have a product and it shows potential for success. Where you can talk to smaller investors who can support your work a little longer so that it can be refined and grow into something that has a real chance to make a difference, make money or both.

The second level of funding is about scale. It’s when you have a proven product that already has some success and needs more than it’s current cash-flow, or personnel, to take it to make a broader impact.

Never Good Enough: Speed (pt 1/3)

We’re never good enough when it comes to speed, stability or simplicity of our mobile and web applications. This is a three-part series where I unpack my experience building apps on each of these subjects. It’s not just for those of us working on Ushahidi, these are the three most crucial abilities of any web or mobile application.

Me in a cyber cafe in Monrovia

Let me tell you a personal story:

Libera, March 2009

I’m sitting, sweating in the sweltering heat of a Monrovia cyber cafe, I have my notebook out and my am watching the clock. My goal is to see how fast I can load up the Ushahidi home page for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it has a map, timeline and list of recent events tracking the current level of unrest in the country.

It’s not looking good. As I look around, waiting for the page to load, I count 8 others in the room – 6 of which have fired up stuttering and unusable Yahoo and Skype video chat windows. Why this is the channel and usage of choice, when it so obviously doesn’t work, I cannot answer. But this is reality, and if we expect ordinary Africans to use our application, we had better make sure that it loads up relatively fast on the low-bandwidth, shared internet connections that proliferate across the continent.

Utter failure. After 20 minutes painfully watching the page load byte by byte, I give up. I quickly type out a message to our team, imploring everyone to streamline this “fat, squeeling pig of a page”. Peppering them with questions… Can I buy some caching please? What can we do with this map to make it not kill the load? Can we get rid of 75% of the images on the page? Do we need to redesign this from the ground up?

Granted, Liberia’s internet situation is worse than almost any other on the continent. Especially when it comes to the grinding halt you see in the cyber cafes during the daylight hours as the local population piles on at the same time, completely overwhelming the limited satellite connection. That’s no excuse though. Ushahidi is built on the idea that the lowest common denominator, whether it’s PC or mobile-phone based access, will work. The PC-side is clearly failing.

Worst of all, my patience is short, Liberia is pissing me off with the heat, humidity, lack of bandwidth and no electricity grid. Objectively, this is the perfect state to be in, I am now able to come up with a solution for normal users in Africa.

What other’s know

Speed… if there’s only one thing that you do with your application, make it faster. No, it’s not fast enough.

This isn’t news to anyone, or it shouldn’t be. For years the major web sites around the world have known this and have been building for it. Mozilla, Amazon, Google and Facebook are all aware of just how critical speed is to their success. It boils down to attention threshold and what we, as users ourselves, are willing to put up with.

There is no area in which our team has felt more pain than in trying to speed up the page loads of our apps. Maps tend to be page killers by themselves. Once we add multiple calls to the database we start to get some truly agonizing speeds. It’s a constant pressure that sits on every one of our development cycles, and for which we dedicate a great deal of energy.

User experience research needed in Africa

One area that hasn’t seen enough true user experience testing is Africa. We know that internet speeds are slower, sometimes by orders of magnitude. I’ve got a lot of questions, more than answers at this point. Should we cut out the maps and all images? What’s the true cost of a page load +/- 7 seconds? What is the real value of maps in Africa compared to the West – do they matter?

Jessica Colaco is a top-notch programmer who has shifted to doing research in Kenya. I hope that she, and others like Eric Osiakwan and his team from Internet Research in Ghana, will help us dig out these answers. More than that, I hope they will help us ask the right questions.

GotIssuez: Exposing Bad Customer Service in Kenya

How do we call out problems with businesses, customer service interaction and lack of service? That’s what Mark Kaigwa and team are trying to answer in Kenya and East Africa. The header on the GotIssuez website states:

GotIssuez logo

“The customer is always right. Gotissuez.com is a platform where customers exercise their right to expose product shortcomings, poor service delivery or suggest ways of improving the products or services.”

GotIssuez is an on-line market research company primarily concentrating on three areas: consumer research, product research and service delivery. Their website is a tool to address the real shortcomings that many in East Africa face when trying to deal with the unusually bad customer service that permeates most of the businesses that operate in the region.

Their tool is mainly focused on the younger generation, people who are web and mobile phone savvy and who aren’t hesitant to raise their voice in protest of bad customer service or bad experiences. At any given time you might see complaints on the “crappy YU (mobile) network”, “Ngong Hills – A poor welcome at the entrance” or griping about political issues. Other users can go in and agree, disagree or help solve the problem the stated problem.

It’s a play to the crowd, a home-brewed combination of what we see on sites like Digg married up with the functionality of sites like Dell’s IdeaStorm.

GotIssuez - comment and votes for customer service issues in Kenya

I was intrigued by the one above actually, as it’s a complaint over the campaign to save endangered lions in Kenya. It’s had a pretty big impact on a certain group of people, mainly businesses and the upper class (so the poster to GotIssuez states). It’s also a good reminder that one mans treasure is another mans trash… 🙂

Campaign to save endangered lions in Kenya

The Business

GotIssuez is currently implementing a large research and development project called ‘Tangaza.’ With this they have already began looking and measuring high-end statistics and detailed metrics on trends, opinions, comparisons and key information relevant to brands. Their focus is to continue to work on this as their business model develops and evolves.

It’s important to note that their tool is not their only effort in the brand monitoring, consumer research and service delivery space. While that is a primary outreach and awareness tool, much of their business comes from the services that they offer to organizations offline.

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