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Mobile content – Africa’s no longer a spectator at the feast but big challenges ahead

Time was when the best content you could get in Africa was SMS services bought in from Europe or the USA. Now with the spread of smartphones and feature phones, there’s a much wider diet available including an increasing amount of local content. Russell Southwood attended the WSA Mobile Content 2.0 Awards in Abu Dhabi and reflects on what the winners say about the delivery of content in Africa and the challenges ahead.

The WSA Mobile Awards are a global initiative that awards local apps that have global relevance. It looks both for commercially interesting apps as well as those that are socially relevant. The event combines a series of pitch sessions for shortlisted entrants and a thoughtful conference. The whole thing is capped with an awards ceremony for the winners.

Many of these eco-system encouraging events in Africa are full of apps that have been developed that are nice ideas but nearly always lack users: I’ll look at why after you’ve seen the winners. However, these are all apps that have significant user bases either on iOS or Android, or both. Often they are highly successful in one country and eminently “exportable” or they are already making an international impact.

The entrants combined a number of apps that are a “bit like” other things and some that were genuine originals. The mobile apps winners by category were as follows:
 
m-Tourism and Culture: Harpoen
 
An Indonesian app that allows you to put digital graffiti on photos and places that leaves a trail of images, messages and memories.
See video clip interview with the co-founders:
 
m-Entertainment and Lifestyle: Dermandar’s DMD Panorama
A Lebanese company with a 360 degree panorama app that is used largely in the USA and Europe but not in the Middle East. The founders value success on an international stage and the app is well used.
See video clip interview with one of the co-founders:
 
m-Media and News: News 360
A Russian and US-based company that has created a successful news aggregation app that gets you information you need. It sounds like lots of other news aggregation sites but its look and selections have made me fall out of love with Digg.
 
See video clip interview with another of the nominees, Hans Eriksson, CEO, Bambuser, whose live broadcast app from your mobile is widely used in Egypt and Syria by citizen journalist. It has over 600 users in Syria:

m-Environment and Health: Prognosis – Your Diagnosis
 
A Sri Lankan app put together by two doctors who were frustrated by all the rote learning they had to do as medical students and wanted to experience the excitement of diagnosis in order to learn through doing. Luckily the smartphone app allows medical students to try their hand without needing to kill real life patients if they get things wrong.
See video clip interview with one of the founders, Dr Kosala Liyange:
 
Another nominee in the same category was Professor Giuseppe Riva, Positive Technology whose app is designed to tackle office-related stress. It’s the first app I’ve heard of undergoing a clinical trial:
 
m-Learning and Education: Project Noah
 
The founder Yasser Ansari wants to create a whole new generation of nature nerds using its digital butterfly net. You photograph a species and if you don’t recognize it, the community will help you identify it. Its users have already identified a new species.
See video clip with the founder:
 
m-Government: Roadroid
 
This mobile app uses the motion sensor in your phone to measure the bumpiness of the road. The Asian Development Bank has used it in south east Asian countries to assess the state of the road networks and individual users can use it to find the smoothest route.
See a video clip with the founder Norwegian Lars Forslof:
 
m-Business and Commerce: i-Butterfly
 
An augmented reality app that encourages you to find digital butterflies that are in different locations and capture them with your phone. The more butterflies you capture, the more rewards you get.
 
For an explanation of augmented reality, see a video clip interview with mobile analyst Tomi Ahonen, who claims it will be the 8th mass media:
 
m-Inclusion and Empowerement: Hand Talk
 
Hand Talk is an app for mobile devices that receives data and translates it to Libras, the sign language of the deaf communities of urban Brazil.
 
There is an interview with another of the nominees, Jonas Deister, Wheelmap.org which proves a mapping of physical access in Germany for wheelchair and stroller users :
 
All of these apps are essentially designed for smart devices; whether pads, phones or TVs. So this is where Africa bumps its head against the first major challenge. If you imagine phone handset use as a pyramid, then the sharp end of that pyramid at the top will be the 3-5% who use smartphones. There will then be approximately 20-30% who use feature phones that have internet access.

The majority who make up the rest will have basic phones: Voice and SMS…….errrr, sometimes a torch. So the majority of people will only be able to receive either voice services (through things like IVR or Freedom Fone) or something in 160 characters as a text SMS.

(And this doesn’t include factoring in illiteracy and functional illiteracy, the inability to understand and do certain tasks. The survey data that is available shows that those who are unwilling to use SMS is a larger percentage than those who are completely illiterate.)

I stood with Professor Rich Ling, University of Copenhagen during a conference break who showed me research data from a range of countries – both developing and developed – and the pattern was clear. For most developed countries, the smart phone is dominant but for many developing countries it is only a small but growing part of the market.

Now obviously over the next 5 years the pattern will change but unless someone produces a smartphone at US$50 or a feature phone at the same price with smartphone like capabilities, the market will remain significantly fragmented. Let’s say we project 20-30% smartphones and 30-40% feature phones (as the new smartphone owners hand them on to relatives, drivers and maids), with the balance remaining as basic phones. For Africa, the biggest growth will be in feature phones.

In some markets this kind of split would produce sufficient numbers for an apps ecosystem if we leave aside issues of equity of access for the moment. But there is another factor that lead to greater fragmentation. In likely order of success, there will be potentially four smartphone operating systems in Africa: Android, Nokia, Blackberry and iOS. At present, there are around 3,000 different feature phones, all of which have potentially different requirements in terms of OS operation and content.

But the challenge is still greater if you consider the law of circles. Draw a circle that represents all phone subscribers in a country and then draw another smaller circle to approximate scale all those who use either smart phones or feature phones. Now if you produce content and services, only a percentage (let’s say optimistically 10%) will use that service so the last circle is the proportion of users in the right category who will actually end up using the service.

You might say the app will be used across countries thus increasing its potential market but this ups the capital and operating cost entry barrier. And this says nothing of how the app market operates where developers have to have a credit card account in order to sign up to an OS developer programme and to be paid for sales. You might say but the app will succeed in the international market but that’s a tough one and robs the developer of his or her best advantage, knowledge of the local market.

So there’s the problem….All those lovely apps above and all those lovely ones that haven’t yet been thought of may not have a market after the processes we have described above. The resolution of this market blockage has significant consequences for mobile operators: you can’t really increase your data sales if the market does not work to its maximum capacity. Those app stores that you have tentatively opened may turn into nothing more than distressed online real estate.

A possible solution to cracking the market barriers described has perhaps three different elements:

1. Everyone a smartphone: Phones have always been about aspiration. In Africa, they have almost replaced the car as the material symbol that says most about you.  So why not use this aspiration and sell the smartphone as the device that can change a person’s life and explain why (information, news, jobs, opportunities, dates, etc)? But to really change the market, there has either to be a smartphone or featurephone with smartphone capabilities at around the US$50 mark. It will have slightly less functionality but be able to do approximately 75% of what the high-end smartphone does. Its services may operate from the cloud rather than directly on the device.

2. Get an interface layer that copes with multiple operating systems: Social network platform biNu has 4 million users globally, of which 1 million are in Africa. Once you’ve downloaded the app, it presents a smart phone like screen that allows you to use different apps including all the usual international stuff (Facebook, Twitter, etc). The services and content is optimized for low bandwidth and is served from the cloud. For the content or service app developer, this means it can deliver direct to a range of feature phones without having to worry how the app will work on them. So for example, it has (in partnership with World Reader) half a million people who read books on their mobile using biNu, 42% of whom are in Nigeria:

3. Getting the touch interface right: Badr Ward, CEO, Ertiqa (an Arab software company – see video clip below) presented figures from a survey that showed that 10% of those up to 1 year had used a touch device; 39% between the ages of 2-4 and 52% aged 5-8. Even before there is formal education, these children work out how the device works and find something pleasurable on it. I can attest to this phenomenon as at my daughter’s wedding late last year the children in the formal wedding photographs were kept distracted by playing a video clip over and over again. This means that even those with low functional literacy can start to access video (delivered over LTE) for pleasure and to learn.

Nothing ever solves everything but until African operators and the content ecosystem developers start to think more strategically, the global opportunity these kinds of apps offer may be stillborn,
 
Things you need to hear from the WSA Mobile Awards 2013:

There were many other interesting participants in the conference and the selection of video interviews below captures some of them:
 
Touch pad edutainment software for children: Badr Ward, CEO of educational software company Ertiqa started out by doing local versioning of international education products but wanted to do something more culturally aware of Arab culture. Falling in love with a princess? Celebrating Christmas? Showing pigs? No, these things don’t fit. So he launched a series of edutainment products for young children under the name of Lamsa (which means Touch) for all touch devices:
 
Gesture recognition and motion control: Niall Austin, OmniMotion Technology from Ireland works with gesture recognition and motion control. He’s produced software that allows you to control what happens on any device with a camera through gesture. His work so far has included games to encourage an interest in exercise and sport and work to help stroke victims recover. But it can also be used for display advertising and second screen TV:
 
Online social activism: The Egyptian Arab Spring has resulted in one of the most interesting flowerings of online and mobile activism. The ambition of Ebba Eltamami’s organization HarassMap.org is to make sexual harassment socially unacceptable. 86% of Egyptian women say they have been sexually harassed and 50% say it has happened on a daily basis. The organization combines online mapping of incidents with face-to-face volunteer work:
 
Holding politicians to account: Abbas Adel Ibrahim works during the day as a software engineer but by night is a social entrepreneur. He decided to launch a website called Morsi Meter to check the achievements of the Egyptian President in his first 100 days against his election promises. It is clearly influential as the President Office is now sending through information:

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