Africa’s big mChallenge: experience, resources and clout

Bright B. Simons

Exploiting the new space opened up by mobile telephony in Africa has not been easy but determined pioneers keep coming up with important breakthroughs, writes Bright B. Simons

In the second week of February, in the year of our Lord 2011, the head of the world’s one billion Roman Catholics put paid to all prospects of a mighty explosion of ‘mReligion’ applications in the near future, when the Vatican ruled that for one of the faithful to confess her/his sins over the phone was not the same thing as to do so in the physical presence of a qualified member of the clergy. The banon the so-called ‘Confession app’ probably put the damper on a few other ideas of digitally replicating church liturgies and sacraments, but it is unlikely to have killed off all efforts to bring mobile technology to bear on people’s chosen forms of worship.

The larger point here is that the mobile phone may have liberated us from most of the constraints that prevailed in the days when basic communications relied on long stretches of heavy metal cable, but it hasn’t really altered the structures of power that often influence the course of innovation and the pace of change. For many grassroots innovators eager to plunge into the brave new world of mobile emancipation, the shock can be disillusioning. They come totally unprepared for the bureaucracy of the marketing departments in the major telecom companies – the form-filling, endless conference calling, and the Latin-sounding jargon, all intermixing to depress.

When the bright-eyed innovator eventually gets ‘cleared’ to engagewith decision-makers, who will make the final determination on whether they would be able to reach potential users of this ‘next big thing’ invention or application, they are very likely to find that the commercial terms feel like nails in the flesh. The truth, quite simply, is that such experiences are no different from what prevails in the ‘old economy’ worlds of merchandising, logistics, transport and utilities. But it is hard to accept old world norms in a supposedly new economy.

A good number of grassroots innovators have taken to the mobile telephony space in the hope of spurning the norms and values of traditional enterprise. This, after all, is what the early web missionaries preached. And when their efforts failed to produce open-source and unrestricted innovation, their remaining enthusiasm – if it didn’t dissolve into cynicism – tended to drift towards the mobile ecosystem.

Successful practitioners in the world of mobile innovation in Africa are those who can hold their own in the domain of traditional enterprise but, seeing its limitations, have mastered the skill of stretching the fabric of that universe until new shapes emerge. In all the burgeoning fields of mobile innovation – in mHealth, mLearning, mLogistics and the rest, as in the sublime terrain of mReligion – it pays to understand the persistence of traditional systems of power, influence and control, and to be adept at manipulating them.

Many of the most successful mobile applications in Africa are focused on banal entertainment: ‘Soccer Academy’ game-shows where enthusiasts interact fervently to keep their favourite soccer players in action; glamorous ‘Big Brother’ copycats where TV addicts vote rampantly to send home ‘housemates’ they detest; or ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ spin-offs in West and South Africa, where the idea is to gamble your way into the opportunity to win a big pot of money based on your knowledge of trivia. These thrive merely by serving the interests of the media and telecom companies, and slavishly respond to the whims of fickle consumers of flashy content.

Thus some of the smartest programmers in African mobile arebusily hunched behind consoles, ensuring the smooth delivery of inane phrases onto the television screens of the middle class. But a good proportion of the remaining talent is engaged in the critical task of keeping the infrastructure stable so that basic voice communications can continue unabated. In Nigeria, for instance, concern for maintaining the diesel generators that power the base stations – off the unreliable national grid – occupies as much attention as ensuring internet connectivity for the various 2.5G and 3G platforms that are now de rigueur in many of Africa’s mobile networks.

The mobile craze in Africa is by no means fully established. Increasingly, a certain breed of innovator is gaining ground, gifted in all the tricks of traditional enterprise but passionate about the new capabilities offered by the technology and how this technology can better harness traditional capital and take new, resultant, models of wealth-creation and social welfare to scale.

The newly-built Paga service in Nigeria, designed by Ethiopian software gurus with the help of Nigerian former financial services practitioners, fits seamlessly between smartphone-based payments facilitation and the debit/credit card infrastructure. If ultimately successful, Paga is intended to liberate Nigeria’s smartphone-brandishing middle classes from having to juggle different bank cards, to fret about complicated card charges, or indeed, to worry about enduring hours sitting in traffic to pay utility bills to the disparate providers of middle-class conveniences, whether cable TV or pipe-borne water. But it had to wait for a boring, very old-world, licence from the Central Bank of Nigeria before it could be launched. And, the hardnosed, hard-knuckle, business savvy of Paga’s promoters has been called upon at every stage of the two-year market entry process.

In East Africa too, old-style licensing and regulatory regimes bestride the entirety of the mobile ecosystem, including centralised numbering systems (just like the days of dial-up), different grades of licences and a complicated permit regime. Hence, an ‘innovative’ new product simply takes much too long to deploy and costs much more than anticipated. The most successful innovators, like Virtual City’s John Waibochi, who won $1 million from Nokia in Kenya to further develop a comprehensive community-mimicking e-commerce platform, or Seven Seas’ Michael Macharia, whose 100-man company provides everything from technology consulting to real estate automation services, are also examples of solid entrepreneurship.

In Africa, those who are succeeding in taking ideas to reality in the new mobile-driven economy tend to be Western-style educated, former professionals from frontline industries, such as financial services and consulting, with a track-record of performance in a process-intense role. With a combination of old-world and new hope strategies, they are steadily driving Africa forward in the mobile innovation race, creating services that can actually become critical components in the growth engine of Africa.

The most famous African mobile application is mPesa. More than 10 percent of Kenya’s GDP is believed to transit this community payments platform annually. It is heavy-duty platforms like mPesa that justify the estimates (by the telecom trade association GSMA) that every 10 percent growth in mobile penetration in African countries brings a boost of 1.2 percent to their GDP. However, mPesa was not built by a grassroots innovator. It is a product supported and promoted by senior executives of Safaricom – by far Kenya’s biggest telecom operator – and its origins lie in collaboration with the most seasoned research and marketing executives of the even bigger Vodafone group.

Some experienced innovators, like those behind Feedelix, shot to fame when they designed a system to beat the Ethiopian government’s mobile communications-suppressing activities. After the government shut down the SMS channel to prevent its use by profreedom campaigners, they deployed a tool to simulate SMS traffic. Now they work trying to facilitate the full participation of communities that use other scripts besides the Roman alphabet into the digital economy. There are parallels between this development and recent collaboration between digital giants Google and Twitter in North Africa. It takes experience, resources and clout to develop a critical service to promote vital civil rights in an African country, and rarely can the activists themselves handle all the complex bits and pieces.

The Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX) has launched a mobile- based commodity trading platform for the benefit of Ethiopian farmers, who heretofore had little chance of cutting out middlemen who took undue advantage of the mismatch between urban food needs and the capability of rural producers to service them. Nobody would dominate an old-economy business boardroom better than the Founder of the ECX – Dr Eleni Gabre-Mahdin. A Stanford trained, former UN and World Bank senior staffer, she couldn’t be farther away from anybody’s expectation of a dreamer.

Then there is Michael Amankwah of Accra-based CoreNett, who wants to turn African ATM machines into full-service, convenient dispensers that do more than dole out cash. The idea is to allow parents to pay school fees directly on the terminal rather than havingto withdraw the cash first, before figuring out how to get it to the school, which for many secondary schools in places like Ghana could be miles away. Amankwah has spent most of the last couple of years tending to the cogs of old-world banks as they became accustomed to the tenuous notion of ‘branchless banking’.

The deeper point is of course not difficult to tease out. Africa is a difficult place to do business for obvious reasons of infrastructure, capital and capacity – whether physical, human, social or institutional. For these same reasons, it is the continent ripest with opportunities. A sceptic may see a bottomless chasm between actuality and potential. But this can be overcome, although it will take both sturdy bridges and even sturdier bridge-builders.

About the author:
Bright B. Simons invented and now promotes the mPedigree platform (www.mPedigree.Net), a mobile phone-based drug quality assurance system

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