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Muthuu Kagio is not as flirty as you would expect. The proprietor of Narob Systems, a city-based Short Message Service (SMS) dating services company, says he is simply a businessman. "I got into the mobile dating business purely by coincidence," says Kagio. "Initially, I was very interested in value-added SMS services."

He first toyed with mobile commerce, or m-commerce, but he could not find market for buying and selling using cell-phones locally. And after several market surveys, he fell in love with mobile dating and he is glad he did.

"I began by doing a market test where I would place an advert in the classifieds sections calling for willing partners for dating," he said in an interview at his Aqua Plaza offices on Murang'a Road, Nairobi. The response was an overwhelming 200 text messages on the first day, not a small number for a start-up trying to find a spot in a community where dating is for the most part sacred and secretive. The other SMS services he tried only got an average of 20 responses a day, he says.

Mr Kagio says the dating service was the result of his innovation and is the latest in the growing roaster of SMS value-added services that are rolled off the two networks by the day.

His is purely an entertainment service and one must be 18 years and above to be registered. "We get about 200 and 300 SMS messages a day depending on the number of people newly informed of the service," says Mr Kagio.

Mobile virtual dating services allow men and women to create a profile, search for dates and start conversations through SMS messages. The application developed by Narob Systems enables users to meet potential partners by just sending a simple SMS. To get started, you have to register by sending an SMS containing your name, age, gender and your preferred task. For instance, "Reg Muthuu 30 M looking for a serious partner," then send the message to a premium number 5288. Reg is shorthand for registration.

Once registered, to find a date you are required to SMS back the qualities you are looking for including age, gender and any other specifications. "After this you will receive a list of currently enrolled members matching your reference and their phone numbers from which you can choose the one to contact," says Mr Kagio.

As a member, the service allows you to send as many SMS messages as you wish until you get your match. Mr Kagio says other than the registration message that costs Sh40 subsequent ones are charged at the normal SMS rate of Sh5.

Just to prove how the search for love is big business, the service rakes in Sh150,000 in a good month. So far, Narob has smitten just over 10,000 people who interact through the service.

Income is determined by the number of texts send by the members, because mobile phone service provider Safaricom pays him a commission depending on the volume of SMSes passed across.

"If I exceed 50,000 active members the service provider will increase my commission to Sh19.23 per SMS," says Mr Kagio. He currently gets a commission of Sh15 for every SMS send by a new date-hungry member. Mr Kagio is looking to increasing the number of subscribers to more than 50,000 by year end. The 30-year-old businessman who tried the same service in America, where he went to college, says even though the job is challenging he loves the experience. And for those who think it a jokers' club, Mr Kagio says has research findings that shatters that perception.

"Those using this service are serious people who have serious businesses going around in their lives," he says. "I was pleasantly surprised that the first person I met was a university student." Mr Kagio was born in Nyeri and later went to college in America, where he trained in business administration.

He plans to try his luck again on mobile shopping, the first of its kind in the country, where people can buy and sell goods through their cell-phones.

"Considering the number of active mobile phone users in Kenya, this is enough to warrant a try," Mr Kagio says of the service. The market is not too small, he says, and can to be nurtured to grow. "Mobile virtual services are like bringing classifieds into your pocket. A mobile is a personal gadget and is convenient," he says.

He, however, bemoans the high cost of running such services, especially charges by local mobile providers. "I pay Sh25,000 every month to my mobile provider," he says.

To cut down on costs, Mr Kagio says the company's server running the SMS service is hosted in America where it is cheaper. "Hosting it in Kenya is very expensive because the charges are Sh15,000 a month compared to the $60 I pay in America." He has hired young techies who make sure every member gets their date.

The Nation