AppLab launches new SMS services after testing use and take-up with potential users – promising early use figures

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AppLab Uganda has been testing and rolling out a range of new mobile information services. It has been experimenting to find out what it is potential users actually want before launching a full service and the early numbers seem to show that they have found some interesting markets, including weather, health and agriculture. Russell Southwood spoke to Eric Cantor, AppLab Uganda Manager about what seems to be working.

AppLab is a Grameen Foundation Initiative that was launched in 2007. It works in partnership with MTN Uganda and Google put up initial funding and technology. The choice of partners was important because it believes that through this combination, any successful service can scaled quickly, both in Uganda and elsewhere.

As Cantor sees it:”The mobile space is full of people piloting projects. They’re never scaling it. With AppLab, we’ve set up a process to test the apps all along the way. We’re not saying we have to do a health app, we’re seeing what communities want and listening and thinking about what they want. We’re putting through 32 million SMS a day so we’re not interested in piloting forever”.

“Therefore we have a higher chance of success. If you have 80 app ideas that fail before there’s a success, you really find something out. That’s the process at AppLab.”

The other thing that has defeated those trying to find successful ways of creating social useful SMS services has been financial sustainability. But Cantor is clear, that it is usefulness to the user that will overcome this obstacle:”If people continually use the service, there’s value. It can either be improvements to their life or entertainment but you have to put in incentives for people to use the system.

“MTN both wants people using and paying but it also wants to build an SMS culture. If there subscribers get information at a low price, it breeds brand loyalty and will result in people switching to MTN to use the service. Google SMS is being marketed by MTN and there were 1 million enquiries in the first week.”

The incentive goes to Grameen’s sales agents, the Village Phone Operators, of whom there are 50,000 in Uganda:”They have a slightly lower tariff and they’re part of selling the app. For example, if it costs USH100, then they get `USH80 as an incentive to help them. They also can be used for feedback as they can tell us what 100 users thought of the service. We showed people prototypes, many of which they didn’t respond to but there was high interest in all of the six subject areas we had chosen.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded a test of Community Knowledge Workers, people who are leaders in their community who distribute information:”They use the mobile to collect information on say banana wilt and how it can be controlled and it’s tied into the Ministry of Agriculture and scientists. The difficulty with this one is that the intermediaries are the focus. They’re trying to get 300-400 Community Knowlewdge Workers rather than 1 million users.”

“When testing the health application, we placed a team of 5 marketers handing out flyers in a university setting, a rural trading center and a village for about 15 days in total. Just with that and no other marketing support, we got 3,000 people to try the service, many of them in the weeks and months after the team finished their work. Even 5 months later, we saw the same people continuing to consult the service for information”.

“The Farmer’s Friend application also got a good reception in farming areas when the right audience was reached. Some enjoyed the capability to use local materials instead of expensive chemical fertilizers to save money and time. Many expressed gratitude for the weather forecasts, which let them avoid costly early planting which loses seeds. We saw repeat evidence of comprehension of and use of the information, some of which is in the video. More than 10,000 weather forecasts were delivered in a very short duration in one of the agriculture field pilots”.

“The marketplace application is an aid to commerce that builds on the existing market information systems. Instead of finding out, say, the price of SimSim in Lira, you can find someone who is selling SimSim, with a specific price, type and quantity, and connect with them directly. During piloting we focused on seeding the market with sellers, but nonetheless found happy farmers who were visited directly by buyers, were more knowledgeable about the status of the markets and who were able to make connections in local markets as well, selling to people nearby seeking that specific commodity as opposed to grouping everything for transport to Kampala and beyond. This cutting out of the middleman is a recurring theme as well”.

“The Application Laboratory continues – this is the first of the products we bring to market but certainly not the last. We’ve tested 10 other ideas in pilot, ranging from call-in voice services to a recording about topics of importance, to a trial of Village Phone Operators selling Internet in rural areas on ruggedized ‘netbooks, to an interactive survey carried out by farmer’s group leaders to track the spread of banana wilt, a disease affecting many plantations in Uganda, and a mini-call center responding to user questions about various topics through manual, live Internet search and escalation to agricultural experts”.