Mobile: The Winds of Change

 

Winds at Langebaan blowing change

So, while mobile web Africa takes place in Johannesburg, just the other week I was in Cape Town attending AfricaCom – another of the highlights of the tech calendar in Africa.

I’ve already written a brief report for Zeta on what was covered at the conference, but for me, three things really stood out;


• Mobile
• Mobile
and
• Mobile


Or more specifically;
• How to manage the basic / smart phone divide
• How to connect the unconnected
And
• What content to provide

You’re not as smart as you think

While in Europe it’s smartphones that dominate the market, in Africa, it’s a whole different ball game. In Uganda there are more mobiles than lightbulbs, while in Nigeria and Zimbabwe, mobile accounts for over half of all web traffic – compared to a ten percent global average. But it’s important to remember that smartphone penetration is dwarfed in comparison to the basic feature phone handset.

Developers absolutely need to think of the feature phone first. The overheads in developing apps for these phone might be high but the take up is ENORMOUS. It’ s the markets who are as yet unconnected by 3g or 4g that have the biggest phone use. So if you’re a developer, it’s not clever to think smart.

Connecting the Unconnected

While current infrastructural limitations mean there is a massive disparity between urban and rural areas, this gap offers a great opportunity for providers who are looking to find a way to connect the unconnected, whether by laying more cables, setting up cheaper (well, it’s all relative) satellites or devising solar powered internet kiosks. The questions for operators and providers is now how to reach the ‘Other 3 billion’. 

But what about the content that needs to be offered to these hard to reach guys?

While Facebook and Twitter dominate the European market it’s the homegrown platforms that are taking on the big boys across the continent. If you took the number of messages sent per day via South African favourite MXit, wrote them on post it notes and laid them end to end, they would stretch 1.5 times around the world. 1.5. And 2go boasts over 20 million users. But one of my personal faves is the newcomer bozza.mobi, which although still in beta allows artists from the townships to self publish, creating their own ‘mobihoods’. It’s local. It can go global.

Change: From Crystal Meths dealer to head of R&D?

But if entertainment currently leads the way, the social and health benefits offered via basic handsets, broadband, or 4G, are hard to ignore.

The Indigo Trust, investors in ICT for development, is pushing platforms which give citizens a voice. In one of South Africa’s largest townships, Khayelitsha, Lungisa, offers locals a chance to send text, audio and video reports outlining social problems. Barely launched, they’ve had over 29 reports responded to by the council. That’s civic responsibility at its best.

Marlon Parker shows off his first mobile phone

Marlon Parker shows off his first mobile phone (almost real size)

The inspiring Marlon Parker of Rlabs is championing for change. He helped use another platform –  Jamiix – to set up a mobile counselling service, delivering drug and unemployment support information to neglected communities. He cites the example of his head of R&D who changed his life around thanks to the information he could get through his phone.

Marlon’s vision is that these technologies can give many hope. Knowledge and hope. And it’s a vision that many share as mobile and social media pushes further up the telcoms food chain.

In a recent survey of goods valued by 18-24 year olds across South Africa, the majority listed bread as the top essential item. Blackberry came second. Diapers were at number 4. And that’s no sh*t.

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