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The iTouch Plc group is a media company that provides a wide range of information, entertainment and messaging services to mobile users encompassing regular news updates, weather alerts, downloading ring tones and wall papers to personalise the phone, voting mechanisms on behalf of media partners, etc. Recognising the affluent market in South Africa, iTouch launched the direct channel model (35050) there at the end of 2003, which enabled them to sell and deliver services and applications directly to customers through Premium SMS shortcodes.

With operations in 25 countries at present, iTouch has become South Africa’s leading mobile VAS provider of wireless data services and products for both consumer and business markets, according to Wayne Levine, Commercial Director at iTouch SA. “Vodacom statistics have shown that iTouch receives the highest volume of requests,” he said.

Of these requests, consumer demands feature predominately and are why their services are orientated around the consumer market. “We provide two types of consumer services – alerts,” which are a suite of information and personalised reminders to the cellphone as a short text message at a time specified by the user, “and MO services, which stands for Mobile Originate and is where the user can pull content and products at any time.”

Current developments have demonstrated that these application-to-person (A2P) services, in which subscribers can receive information and products by sending a text message, are most appealing to mobile users explained Levine. “Of all our users about 5% favour alerts whereas 95% prefer data when they want it.” The popularity of the 35050 services, which offers ringtone and logo downloading amongst the many pickings, much like 8181 in the UK and 7777 in Spain, is evident of this trend as it “is our biggest product,” he said. Marketed for iTouch’s target group of 16-24 year olds, Levine definitely accredits the success of 35050 to the youth generation who “are the most aggressive in terms of data services for cellphones.”

However, that is not to say that the services iTouch SA provide only appeal to youngsters, he added. “Our consumers range from 8 or 9 years old up to 60 or 70,” with the older users just as interested in downloading ringtones and personalising their phones as younger users are just as keen on receiving news alerts and keeping up to date with current affairs. Another successful product of iTouch SA is in fact INFOtext, which is the biggest real-time SMS information service in South Africa where users can request once-off information, from Lotto results to horoscopes, to their mobile by sending a keyword to 33030.

An interesting trend that Levine touched upon when asked about the background of users was that many black South Africans were attracted to their iTouch services and that iTouch SA actually “underestimated the popularity of our services within the ethnic community and that they may even be more popular than in the white community.” He put this down to the fact that while many white South Africans had access to other means of communication like the television or internet, many members of the black community “have limits to communication devices so use their cellphones more to retrieve information.”

With no subscription to these services the only limits to users are confined to which mobile operator they are connected to. To enjoy the benefits of INFOtext users must have Vodacom or MTN lines while the service to receive alerts is only available to contract subscribers with Vodacom. 35050 services on the other hand are accessible to MTN and Vodacom subscribers via SMS and MTN, Vodacom and Cell C through IVR (Voice Information Service). Revenue is divided between the mobile operators, content providers and iTouch SA who takes 50%, anything between 10% and 30% and between remaining 20% and 40% of what the consumer pays respectively.

With 19 million mobile users in South Africa to date and millions of transactions a week, as indicated by Levine, iTouch SA has been able to build a very profitable business. The accelerating growth in the sale and distribution of multi-media handsets and an ever increasing market focused on device personalisation, SMS shortcodes and premium SMS billing provides highly favourable conditions within Africa for iTouch on the whole. Levine concluded that there is “definitely demand for content services throughout Africa” but iTouch are taking a cautious approach in regards to expanding across the continent as “the ways in which African businesses are run are still quite foreign to us.”

Last year the company launched it’s direct channel model in Morocco under the brand name ‘SOGO’ in which they offered premium SMS services enabling users to download ringtones, logos, picture messages and images via the shortcode 888. It is operated through iTouch’s mobile entertainment platform in London and in collaboration with the second largest mobile operator in Morocco, Meditel, which is controlled by Telefonica of Spain and Portugal Telecom. Revenue is divided more or less on a similar basis to how it is in South Africa. Based on a transaction whereby the consumer pays the equivalent of 150p the mobile operator Meditel takes 50p, which is 33%, while iTouch recognise 100p. Of that 100p, 12% to 15% goes to the content provider as a royalty payment, while another 3% to 5% cover traffic charges and aggregator costs. iTouch Plc have said that it is too early to comment on trends within their Moroccan market but with access to 8 million mobile users, results to date have exceeded management’s expectations.

Commercial services that offer the purchase of ringtones and logos are far from the minds of rural communities in West Africa. The needs of mobile users there are much different and concern their family and livelihoods. Manobi, a mobile data services operator, addressed these needs and was the first SMS service provider in Senegal informing and linking together farmers dispersed in the bush as a way to secure sales of their produce on the markets. By providing added value corporate services to their clients Manobi help them to generate more revenue, save costs and improve their business performance.

In the middle of their field and totally isolated from developed areas these farmers use their mobile phones to find out the current price of their produce on the principal Dakar markets. The idea behind this tool is to enable its users to sell their produce at more realistic prices by making it impossible for wholesalers to inflate prices and by shortening negotiation time, decreasing the waste of perishable goods, etc. Tested and launched in 2000 by businessman and Manobi’s CEO, Daniel Annerose, it is now backed by Sonatel, the principal national telephone operator.

In 2003, the initiative was extended to include providing fisherman, via SMS technology primarily, with up-to-date weather reports and market price information. In addition the fishermen are able to use the interactiveness of the technology to input fish stock information for marketing purposes, and to log their departures and estimated times of return, so that local fishing unions can be alerted if fishing boats fail to return on time.

In total Manobi have about 8000 subscribers to their services, which is still relatively low but at 3000 XOF (the equivalent of 5E) this is understandable. However, Annerose explained how his company are “trying to provide a free system to be launched soon,” which will help increase the subscriber base. Also, of the 8000 users, 70% are farmers and at the moment the information Manobi provides is only in relation to vegetable and fruit prices whereas many Senegalese farmers deal with solely crops, if not in addition to. “In regards to the number of farmers who just sell fruits and vegetables, the number of users we have is a good number for the farmers concerned,” said Annerose. “We are currently looking into collecting more information on crop prices which should increase the number of users we have even more,” he added.

The type of SMS service that Manobi offers is an alert system where “information is pushed to the user once a day at the same time,” described Annerose. In addition, Manobi will be providing more advanced services for those users who want it and are willing to pay for it, he went on to say. He also said that the results have been “very positive and that all users are benefiting from the service.” Although it is early days to quote figures on the impact of the service on artisan fisherman in the region, it is believed that farmers have increased their revenue by 15% to 25% due to the information supplied by Manobi.

This success for Manobi has translated into being named Top ICT Company and Most-Innovative Company of the Year at the African ICT Awards at the end of last year. Manobi is now extending its know-how and resources to South Africa where it is in partnership with Vodacom and Alcatel to launch a new project for rural communities involved with agribusiness in Limpopo. Like Manobi’s operations in Senegal, the goal of this project is to provide to these communities GSM added value services to help them to sell their produce more effectively into national markets.