Africa.Com: Marlon Parker, Social Media and Targeting Rural Communities

In a packed arena, on the third day of Africa.Com in Cape Town, Marlon Parker of RLabs was definitely the highlight of the Service Innovation in a Digital Africa session.

He highlighted the natural entrepreneurial spirit and innovation present across Africa, where creativity has arisen naturally out of the struggle to survive.  He believes it’s critical that we tap into this boundless talent, present in a young continent full of tech enthusiasts.  He told his inspiring story of how RLabs had transformed ex-gang members and drug addicts into social entrepreneurs, creating viable products whilst changing their lives.  He believes his secret lies in believing in people, seeing their potential and giving them the tools to affect change in their communities. 

Marlon showcased some of their fantastic products including Uusi, a mobile platform addressing unemployment and Jamiix, a platform enabling multiple conversations from various channels which is being used for counselling and advice services.

He also highlighted the importance of Open Data and platforms and of increasing access to information.  He believes there’s a need for more locally relevant content and games and to increase the ability of Africans to transact.  For this, he highlighted the potential role of mobile payments.

Presentations and a large discussion focusing on social media followed featuring representatives from a range of organisations including Groupon SA, Mxit, MLabs, You Tube, Facebook and MoTribe.  My favourite quote from the session was ‘Word of mouth is on Digital Steroids’, which I think really captures the important role that social media has to play for businesses and social projects.  Key opportunities explored included establishing effective partnerships between Mobile Operators and Content Providers, utilising USSD more effectively, encouraging the development of locally relevant content and producing this locally.

Challenges highlighted included data costs being far too high, low bandwidth and people lacking understanding of data bundles, resulting in fear and a lack of purchases.  Many encouraged mobile operators to reduce costs, which will result in significantly greater use of their networks.

Later in the afternoon, I participated in a fascinating Rural Telecoms session.  Angel Dobardziev of Ovum Rural Telecoms highlighted how 1 billion people still have no telecom coverage and reminded us of the importance to build content for non-smart phone users.   He also highlighted the difficulty in making a business case for reaching more remote communities with transport, backhaul, fuel/power and sites/towers all being costly.  There is still hope.  He does believe some business models are emerging.

Dion Jerling of Connect Africa provided an insightful case study of how they brought telecoms infrastructure to a rural region of Zambia at a low cost and it was inspiring to listen to his refreshingly honest approach about just how challenging the reality of this was.

I ended off the session by showcasing some of the fantastic services being developed for rural communities in the agriculture, health, transparency and citizen empowerment space.  Naturally, I showcased our fantastic grantees and gave an overview of how Indigo supports such interventions, the role of technology innovation hubs in encouraging local innovation and the factors we believe contribute to the success of a project.

I left the conference buzzing with ideas and inspiration and I look forward to following up with some of the interesting people I met there.