South Africa’s Onli SMS app seeks to update the messaging old faithful by adding encryption, translation and adding to message length

7 June 2019

Top Story

Technologies change quickly but behavior changes much more slowly. SMS is still the default messaging platform for millions of Africans. But little attempt has been made to update or improve what it can do. Russell Southwood spoke to Ivan Kartun, CEO, who will be launching a beta Android app shortly that will change things.

Kartun has an engineering and electronics background and told me that the idea for Onli came to him in a flash. He then spent a month doing a proof of concept. The platform uses an intelligent encryption, compression and referencing algorithm:”Nothing much has changed about SMS in twenty years and this really makes changes”.

Onli adds three key functionalities: encryption, translation and increased message length. With encryption, you send the message the same as you would with traditional SMS but encrypt it and the person receiving it has to put in a password to decrypt the message. Once read, it is automatically re-encrypted so if someone gets steals your phone and gets access to it, they will be unable to read these messages.

This works well for organizations like banks who want to send sensitive information like one-time PIN numbers.

With the translation function, you can choose one of seven languages for it to be received in. You can send in Xhosa and read in Zulu, or the same in reverse. The beta version has seven languages: English, Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, French, Portuguese and Somali. There are as many as 2,000 languages in Africa and the challenge is translating between them, even within a single country. will be adding extra languages as the platform develops.

It has developed a standalone programme called Hug-A-Lot that is able to get African languages talking to each other:”Think of it as a bicycle wheel. Each spoke can talk to any other spoke on the wheel.”

“The standard single SMS allows 160 characters but we can go to 467 characters. We can bring all these functionalities through our algorithms and nobody’s able to do all of this”.

Examples of how the translation function might be used is by a mine manager who wants to communicate with his workforce who may speak several different languages. With he can send out one SMS to all the workforce and doesn’t have to get translations for each group of workers who speak different languages.

“Recently we met an NGO that wanted to bring peace to Africa. If you don’t address the issue of language, you’ll fail. People might fight over language and it’s fundamental to bringing peace”.

The service works as an app on an Android phone and Onli is currently working on an iOS version. The translation function Hugalot will also be put on the desktop. Translation does not require data.

In its launch phase, Onli is working with companies to give them bulk SMS capability:”We’re looking at the likes of banks and mines. We’re working with two companies initially. We’ll then work with those companies to get their end users to put the app on their phone. We want to do direct to consumer but that will be the next phase. Having 1,000 employees already on the app will encourage others to download it”.

“Over 70% of Africa does not have access to data and that’s a big market people are ignoring and we want to work with people to address it”.


What are you going to do with all that wholesale bandwidth capacity you bought?

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