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Symbiotic launches first East African mobile social network

Symbiotic Media Consortium has released Sembuse, East Africa's first mobile social network and content platform, where users can purchase stock information, news and videos.

Sembuse allows users to communicate cheaply at 50 Kenya cents (US$0.006) per message, up to 1,000 characters, using the SMS (Sembuse Messaging Suite) within the Sembuse network.

Conventional text within the GSM service is limited to 160 characters and an average cost of 3.50 Kenyan shillings (US$0.043). Sembuse users can text to other GSM networks across East Africa at a subsidized rate of 2.50 Kenya shillings.

"Symbiotic Media has entered into agreements with mobile networks that allow us to buy capacity in bulk," said Mbugua Njihia, CEO at Symbiotic Media.

Sembuse currently supports three languages -- English, Swahili and German -- with French and Chinese due for release in four weeks. The service is expected to receive support from young people given that they have been faster in adopting new technologies.

Symbiotic decided to target mobile handsets given the faster growth of mobile phone usage compared to Internet services.

"Until there is decent Internet penetration in Africa, the use of Web-based services will continue to lag," Njihia said.

Sembuse allows users to invite their friends from all over the world into their network and share content such as customized news alerts, real time stock market alerts and news, rave crave (which gives users a snapshot of the nightlife in their location), and the gossip channel, which allows users to submit and share gossip with their friends.

Symbiotic has been active in delivering innovative technology solutions to Africa's institutions; the company built the first exam result service for the Kenya National Examinations Council, an ATM finder service in Nigeria, a lost document and identity card search service in Kenya, and custom applications on SMS and mobile applications for a varied corporate client base.

"The guys behind Sembuse are ambitious; they're doing something that I've thought for a long time needed to be done, I am glad to see that they've taken a two-pronged revenue approach- relying on advertising alone in this economic environment wouldn't be that promising, but by tapping into the end-users has added potential," said Erik Hersman, a technology blogger and one of the founders of www.Ushahidi.com.

Sembuse can be downloaded directly to a user's handset by pointing the mobile phone browser to m.sembuse.com. Upon registration, users can immediately invite friends to their network and start sending SMSes anywhere in the world.

"I wonder if we will see more people moving from their older SMS-only phones with no data capability, to GPRS enabled phones," added Hersman. "This happened in South Africa when the MXit mobile SMS platform was launched; the same can happen in East Africa."

MXit launched Africa's first mobile social network and recently launched the continent's Instant Message book in a bid to encourage literacy and a love of reading in South Africa. MXit users can download an entire book on the MXit network for 13.50 South African Rand, which is significantly lower than the cost of purchasing literature in traditional bookstores.

While Symbiotic Media projects higher revenue given the opportunities provided by cheaper bandwidth and increased Internet penetration, it has suffered from lack of financial support.

"There exists a disconnect within the financing circles because of lack of local venture capital firms or angel investors; it was indeed difficult to find a venture capital firm or individual investor willing to cater for the costs of development and marketing Sembuse," Njihia said.

With the language interface, Njihia predicts that Sembuse will be used all over Africa and globally as long as users have access to the Internet and can log on to the Sembuse network.

Computerworld Kenya

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