This week, I was invited to present at Mobile Web Africa 2012 in Johannesburg, an international conference exploring the ways in which the internet and applications on mobile phones are contributing to economic growth, supporting businesses and social change in Africa.
It was an exciting and interactive event, with presentations, panels and roundtable discussions. A lot of the discussions revolved around how the cost of data can be reduced in South Africa (and to some extent Africa more generally) where costs are prohibitively high. One of my favourite quotes of the day was ‘SMS technology is the closest thing to pure profit in the world’!
There was also significant debate around whether or not people should be focusing their efforts purely on smart phone development. Currently, the South African market is largely focusing on smart phone applications (and predominantly commercial products), which serve only 1 in 7 in the country (the figure is 1 in 32 for Africa overall). Myself and several others tried to encourage people not to ignore applications on feature phones and to think about targeting the majority who are in the greatest need to access relevant information which can improve their lives.
The first day kicked off with Gustav Praekelt of Praekelt Foundation who reminded us that 90% of phone users use less than 1Mb of data per month and highlighted the complexity of building applications for an African market where developers often only get 20% of the money which end users pay and regulatory issues are highly complex. Data costs are high and there is a need to build applications in many languages. He highlighted a need to speak to beneficiaries early on, to think about self-sustainability and to aim to achieve scale of at least 1 million users.
He showcased Young Africa Live, a platform which embeds sexual health messaging into an entertaining platform which has 1.4 million users, has been zero rated and is available in South Africa, Tanzania and South Africa. Their new component Info4Africa will enable people to locate their nearest health clinic for HIV testing and includes 12,800 providers. He also showcased his remarkable USSD application which enables people to access information from Wikipedia on a basic phone at a low cost.
Gift Mphefu from Vodacom highlighted a need for localised applications and content and for building the local tech ecosystem. Himself and others also reminded developers of how important marketing is in order to expand their user base (mobile operators have a big role here) and showcased innovations which are enabling people to buy applications with Airtime, removing the need for credit cards, which are rare across the continent. He also highlighted the need to teach iteration so people can respond to user preferences fast and to build a sound business case from the start. He also spoke of the challenges in nurturing entrepreneurs when the best are often snapped up by the corporate sector.
Mark Kaigwa of Afrinnovator gave a fantastic presentation which tried to bring some realism to the hype about Kenya being Africa’s Silicon Savannah. As well as highlighting successes from the country, he reminded people that the difficulty in registering businesses and having to deal with 41 tax regulations was slowing the sector down and that there was a greater need to balance supply and demand. He also critiqued the Hackathon culture, explaining that many entrepreneurs were focusing on idea generation as opposed to viable projects. He outlined some of the fantastic innovations in the mobile money space including savings account, accessing loans and even being able to pay for buses using mobile credit via Beba. He disputed the mantra ‘Build it and they will come’, highlighting the need for investment in sales and marketing-‘Build it, sell it and they will come’.
My presentation focused on the role of tech innovation hubs and highlighted case studies of successful projects in the democracy, agriculture and health sectors, focusing on our fantastic grantees including iCow and Budgit. I discussed the role of foundations and the corporate sector in supporting this space and discussed impact measurement, reminding people that this sector is still in its infancy and that we need to be patient before seeing the real impact of projects. You can view my presentation below.
Justin Coetzee highlighted how his Go Metro application, a mobile transit App for Jo’burg has saved jobs, helped people reach examinations on time and improved the commuter experience for the working class.
Justin, Sipho Ngwenya from Afroes and I participated in a panel focusing on how mobiles can be used for social change and our moderator Toby Shapshak wasn’t afraid to ask controversial questions. Discussions revolved around the need to use feature phones, why so few social applications are currently being developed in South Africa and the impact of social projects. I highlighted the importance of taking into account the needs of your particular beneficiaries and using technology which is locally available to these users, highlighting why MySociety type websites which often target journalists and civil society could focus on smart phone and web based platforms while an application like iCow must be available on basic phones.
Last but not least, in a session which highlighted the role of social media in expanding your reach and engaging with your user base, this inspiring video showcased how things may have been different for Mandela if social media was around during his long walk to freedom.
All in all, it was a most enjoyable conference and I look forward to the next event, which I believe will be in East Africa.