Starfish Mobile sees mobile Internet and smarpthones’ growth in Africa as an opportunity for value added services

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A month ago, Balancing Act released its latest report on mobile apps for Africa: strategies to make sense of free and paid apps, and since then news have carried on coming on more African mobile operators launching 3G services bundled or not with data packages and Internet enabled handsets (see below Africell in Sierra Leone and Tunisie Telecom in the telecoms section). The handset makes landscape in Africa is set to change too and this will have an impact on the content that African mobile users will look for. Isabelle Gross speaks to Sean Pashley, Chief Executive Officer and Jonathan Hoehler, Chief Technical Officer at Starfish Mobile about content provisioning and the opportunities for value added services with the increasing number of mobile Internet enable handsets and smartphones. 

Starfish Mobile was formed in 2002 in South Africa to provide mobile content aimed at mobile subscribers. Since then, the company has expended operational activities in 22 territories with 35 telecoms partners . Starfish Mobile is headquartered in South Africa but has also offices in Tanzania, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Ghana.

Starfish Mobile’s content portfolio ranges from text based infotainment content to sophisticated interactive client campaigns. Content on demand covers news information whatever local or international. In Congo for example, Starfish Mobile offers a news subscription service that has a mix of news feeds coming from local newspapers and from international news providers like the BBC or AFP. Text based content also includes entertainment services like horoscope, tips, religious quotations or fun messages. Within these categories, Starfish Mobile is also focussing on providing more content in local languages including Africaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Swahili, Lingala (Congo) and Lugandan (Uganda). According to Jonathan Hoehler, they are working on adding more variant of local languages like for example the Swahili spoken in Tanzania.

Most of this content is offered on a subscription basis and not on advertising model basis. According to Sean Pashley, there is a lot of interest for mobile advertising but unfortunately there is not yet enough advertising budget allocated to this medium and also many telecoms operators lack to understand that the latter kind of model requires first a kind of customer profiling as well as setting up a permission-based customer data base. African mobile operators have a history of sending out unsolicited messages or spam messages to their mobile subscribers. There are nevertheless promising add funded programmes launched by big brands like the Guinness VIP program launched by the international brewer last November in Nigeria. As Sean Pashley explains the campaign did not only give mobile subscribers access to the latest football news, infotainment, chat forums and football trivia but members could also access a dedicated mobile website that allowed them to chat and debate about everything that was going on in the world of football for free via the GVIP messenger.

Both Sean and Jonathan suggest that more sophisticated paid for or free (subsidised by advertising) content will be developed as African mobile users get more smartphones or feature rich phones that let them access the Internet. In South Africa, the number of smartphone owners has grown tremendously in the last twelve to eighteen months and Blackberry smartphones and its messenger service have been recently acknowledged by the South African youth as the coolest brand and service. Mobile operator Safaricom in Kenya has launched in partnership with Huawei, the Android IDEOS smartphone which currently retails at US$97 and comes with a bundle of 1000/- airtime plus 600MBs of data. In Ghana, Tigo has launched a mi-fone handset integrated with Facebook. While the pace of adoption of web enabled phone is encouraged by the availability of cheaper handsets, mobile subscribers in Africa are becoming more aware of what their mobile handset can do (many surveys carried out in African countries ranging from South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya to Morocco show that African mobile users are carrying out more and more non-voice activities on their phone). For content developers and value added services providers like Starfish Mobile, these are positive signs that African mobile subscribers will engage more with content and advertising. 


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