Tapping African mobile crowd using low mobile-tech, by Margaux Pelen

Margaux Pelen represents the new generation of French graduates: concurrently to HEC Business School, she completed a Tech master at Telecom Paris, fulfilling her ‘geek’ fiber. Then, she cofounded a start-up, Home’n’go, and has been a fearless entrepreneur ever since. She shares with us some learnings from her experience of visiting Tech-Hubs and communities in Africa (previous episode here).

[MP] Startup founder Kago showed me his really simple to use yet really useful app only a few days after I met him at iHub, Nairobi’s hot tech center. To use it, you just need to send a text message and you’ll receive SMS quizzes in various topics : science, maths, swahili or even social studies. After a few shots, you’ll probably find yourself texting quizzes waiting in supermarket lines and commuting in buses (I missed a stop a couple of times).

This mEducation app is called Eneza education and it aims at coaching Kenyan kids before classes (or giving them another chance when they drop out). It uses SMS the way smartphone apps would use notifications, i.e. fostering interactions, except you can reach out to the vast majority using SMS. It’s good example of why «text based services » matter so much in terms of software in developing countries.

Low tech, high relevance & appropriate technology

My first Skype calls connected to this month of ‘net-exploration’ in East Africa, Paul Falzone (founder of a media NGO PVI in Uganda) explained me why in 2013, he was using audiotapes, DVDs & VDCs (Video CDs).

His NGO aims at broadcasting educational and advocacy messages. To do so, they package them with the latest music and distribute the whole content to “public screens” (bar, buses, beauty salons, etc.). In Uganda where electricity penetration is limited to 10%, those screens are strategic touch points with the population and the latest audio format would be totally pointless. Technology must be appropriate.

Compared to what can be seen in Western countries, here it’s not because a technology is available that it should be used (perfect counter example — the latest Apple computer). The goal is on the opposite to look for the biggest tech common denominator.

60% of Kenyans below the poverty line have access to a mobile phone

If you have a tech bottom-up approach, i.e. if you develop tech services that should impact the vast majority and are only viable with a high volume of users, appropriate technologies are the simplest ones.

In Kenya and according to the World Bank, 60% of the people living below the poverty line have an access to a (basic) phone (the general average being 95%). The simplest things to access this target are therefore SMS and USSD technologies – some kind of interactive SMS services. As they are standardized since 1985 and are now used by 80% mobile users worldwide (3.5b people), they can be considered as the biggest communication raw material.

Africa focused NGO TextToChange understood this and created a relevant platform enabling massive text messages campaigns for firms, institutions & NGOs in several countries. It trades answers to polls in education and health for free airtime and creates some research content through a dedicated SMS based (Africa Research). Totally relevant when 99% of mobile consumption is prepaid and purchased in very small amount.

Tech ‘translation’ as a means of diffusion

This ‘low tech, high relevance’ principle can sometimes come with a ‘translation’ from a technology to another to make it relevant.

A hot example could be the ‘Ping’ service developed after the Westgate attack by the Ushahidi team a month ago. The idea of « Ping » is simple : help check on your family and friends in an emergency situation. A smartphone app existed but as Erick Hersmann explains on the Ushahidi blog, there was « a need to make it work for even the simplest phones ». Hence the development of an SMS service that will help bridge « the last tech 1000 metres ».

Eneza Education shows how you can have a very low tech yet relevant approach. Its text messages are as relevant as e-mails and notifications would be for an smartphone app like Duolingo (a language learning app). SMS/USSD and the latest tech driven mobile startups appear opposite but focus on the same thing today: solving an issue & addressing it in the most relevant way.

Here again, Nairobi seems to be leading the way with its mobile focused incubator m:lab (where Eneza was incubated).

Editor’s note: take a moment to discover some startling low-mobile-tech African start-ups, taking the best of SMS, USSD, and current low bandwidth:

  • mPedigree uses SMS verification to secure medicine against faking, counterfeiting and diversion;
  • iCow, just dial *285# and get 3 agricultural tips per week by SMS;
  • Tuluntulu delivers unbroken video at around 30kbps;
  • Eduze (South Africa) provides digital content for mobile, free easy access with slick UI, through a portable ‘clox’, a cloud box providing content from a  local distribution point;
  • Ubongo (Tanzania) broadcasts education lessons on TV and Radio, and offers interactive quizz via USSD service over any phone;
  • Brainshare (Uganda) is an education platforms, where you can test yourself, compare, identify improvements, share through a hashtag, interact through USSD and SMS. Orange is a supporting partner;
  • Duma works for you‘ (Kenya) is a job matching web platform, accessible for basic phones via SMS;
  • Remote Cycle (Kenya), billing software, supports payment collection via mobile money, and SMS bill delivery;
  • Notafy (South Africa) is an instant company messaging platform to communicate with its customers through bulk sms, and Notafy free messages. Notafy is whatsapp for companies;
  • ForgetMeNot enables mobile users to send and receive email and Instant Messages through standard USSD and SMS services;
  • Binu is a cloud-based mobile app platform that makes it possible for feature phones to function like smartphones. Binu gives feature phone users access to cloud-based apps and services like Facebook, Twitter, and web browsers. It also recently introduced a new cloud storage tool for its users;
  • Sky Energy (Zimbabwe) distributes pay as you go solar solutions that use mobile phone technology to recharge.
  • Karibu Solar (Tanzania), by spreading the components of the solar lamp, is splitting the cost, $3 upfront, 30 cts for recharging; one can even charge a phone;
  • Fairwaves is a base station designed for Africa, solar panel, affordable thanks to careful hardware design, open source sofware, with a business model based on services rather than hardware.

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