The mobile Internet will do more for Africa than live 8

 

 

Note: originally posted in July 2005 long before the OpenGardens blog was popular, this remains one of my favourite posts and in hindsight, with mPesa and others, has proved prophetic!

On a day when Africa is in the news .. here is a different perspective based on my own experience. It reflects my views – especially the ability of individuals to make a difference when they have access to knowledge.

I saw this phenomenon first in India in the early 90s when I was living in India. At that time, India was in the throes of a ‘cable’ revolution. Mind you, there was no ‘ministry’, which had sanctioned this. It was a grassroots phenomenon. I remember the local video shop owner suddenly started adding ‘cable’ to his offerings. And he was not the only one. Every colony(a group of buildings) had it’s own network. The legality of it all was suspect (although today it’s all pretty much corporate and legal).

The point is though, people were getting access to information(and this was not the government sanctioned media). Even in the smallest village – you could see ‘MTV’ – which was a bizarre phenomenon in some ways. More importantly, the villages had yellow PCO booths. So, you could call anywhere in the world.

Again more connections – more information.

This was early 90s. Today India is a force to reckon in technology

Is there a connection between people, technology and wealth?

I believe that there is … Which brings us to Africa ..

Lets contrast two bits of news.

A couple of weeks ago, Simpay (www.simpay.com) collapsed.

Simpay was a European mcommerce initiative. Typically on a grand scale – top down – with the big operators all ‘solidly’ behind it. It collapsed like a pack of cards when one operator pulled out. The end was so quick that many did not believe it.

But mcommerce itself if far from dead.

And where does it survive?

You would not guess – but it’s Africa.

According to the feature(www.thefeature.com) (no link exists – so I don’t know the author)

Although many Western research companies still stick to the idea that mobile usage remains the preserve of the relatively well off, many countries in Africa are showing through prepaid, handset sharing and the sheer desire to own a mobile despite having very little income, that mobile service can reach all parts of the populace. The great advantage for m-banking in African countries is that the conflicts between the stakeholders simply don’t exist in the same way as in Europe and the West. Most of those players have little or no current business in the area, and see m-banking as an opportunity, rather than a threat, to their business models.

The lack of existing vested interests(and for that matter an existing ecosystem itself) is creating a whole new value chain.

A company called celpay offers mobile phone-based virtual bank accounts with features like account transfers, bill payments, cash deposits etc. It has created a large retail base (shops, petrol stations etc) who will accept these transactions.(cellpay uses a solution from a South African company called fundamo

Also according to the feature

Celpay has also developed successful m-banking business services. This includes mobile phone-based order entry with cash on delivery payment functionality. Current users include Coca-Cola, breweries and a cement manufacturer. In DRC (Democratic republic of Congo) alone, there were over 80,000 transactions per day on the Celpay system in November 2004.

Read that last statistic again .. 80,000 transactions per day! – in the democratic republic of Congo!!

There is another big boom in voucherless topups

The agent simply enters the subscriber’s mobile number, amount of credit needed and the agent’s pin and the subscriber’s account is topped up.

The irony is .. the only other place where m-commerce is booming well is in the worlds most advanced markets for mobility – Japan and Korea. For example – in Japan, NTT docomo and Sony are running the felica trials

There are not many subjects where you can mention Japan and Democratic republic of Congo in the same context.

Ahh .. but you say .. Africa is not China(or Japan, or India or Singapore)

There is no culture of entrepreneurship.

That’s not quite true

According to GEM(Global entrepreneurship monitor) ..

Uganda has the highest Total Entrepreneurial Activity (TEA) of all countries participating in GEM 2003. The TEA of 29.2 indicates that almost every third adult Ugandan is an entrepreneur. In comparison, the World average is only 8.8.

So .. it’s possible

This leads me to make the statement .. the mobile internet(and m-commere) will do more for Africa than anything else(commendable as these efforts always are). In fact, m-commerce is just the medium. The real people doing the work are the people of Africa.

Soon, they will learn from the Philippines and get rid of governments that do not serve them. Information will be impossible to contain

If Bill Gates’ dream was to have a PC on each desk running Microsoft software .. then EVERY person in the world could well have a mobile device(although they may not have a PC)That could do wonders for many countries in Africa – both commercially and politically.