Emergent Africa: Innovation in Mobile Commerce, Culture and Community

I love how connected the world is. Emer Beamer who I’ve done some work with at Butterflyworks put me in touch with Ulrike Reinhard who was curating WE Magazine‘s first Africa Edition – WE Africa [There are so many other amazing pieces of work to read, so bookmark it or sit and go through the articles]

I’m always open to chances to share and declare what’s happening on the continent and this was a great opportunity. Below is my piece which was published earlier in January this year. Enjoy.

Emergent_Africa_Sunset_Photo_by_Mutua_Matheka_2011

Mark Kaigwa
… is a storyteller working with leading African brands, communications agencies and non-profits to improve communication and collaboration using mobile and the social web.

http://www.mark.co.ke http://www.twitter.com/mkaigwa http://afrinnovator.com http://africandigitalart.com

It is both a great pleasure and an honour for me to be contributing to WE_magazine in its focus on Africa. I appreciate the spotlight and hope that the words I write will do more than arouse your interest, but spark an unquenchable flame to ignite Africa in your eyes. That this ember as it glows will enlighten a new state of mind, far from that of Africa being the so-called “Dark Continent”.

WE are Africa.
WE are Making History.

Africa’s writing history, for all the right reasons now. The amount of innovation going on across the continent has leaders, thinkers and innovators curious about the possibilities of this market. A challenge when talking about the continent is its sheer size. Lest we forget, Africa is not a country, but a complex continent of 54 countries and regions. To put this in context, Africa is over 2,600 languages; that’s over 2,600 local cultures to address.
To take a birds-eye view of the continent, we must continue to frame the conversation in context. Let’s look at some numbers about Africa:

  • 1 billion people
  • +500 million mobile phones
  • +110 million connected to the Internet
  • +27 million on Facebook
  • Internet penetration across the continent is pegged at 11%

The internet and mobile phones are transforming the way Africans communicate and transact. We’ll look at them from three perspectives focusing on the mobile, and bringing it back into the context of the internet.

Commerce

This has to be the single biggest innovation success that’s been bringing worldwide recognition, awards and acclaim. The rise of mobile commerce or m-commerce has seen Africa positioned as the market leader and thought leader when it comes to providing solu-tions for people without bank accounts and those at the bottom of the pyramid.

Kenyan mobile phone service provider, Safaricom’s product M-Pesa (M for mobile, Pesa Swahili for money) being the worldwide leader and the greatest success so far. Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt recently declared that Google’s next phone, the Nexus S would be the mobile wallet and could eventually replace the credit card. This has been a reality in Africa for the past 3 years thanks to mobile phone technology and innovative payment systems such as M-Pesa.
M-Pesa’s got a network of over 20,000 agents across Kenya. Whether small one-man kiosks, to Customer Care Centres or even tills at supermarkets, the ubiquity of mobile money has meant that Kenyans have defined and owned the mobile wallet circa 2007. To put it into context, when I take a cab, I pay my cab driver with M-Pesa, I buy my groceries with M-Pesa mobile. Whether it’s school fees or collecting salaries some people prefer M-Pesa.

This has meant that banks have had to innovate to retain and engage new customers. Partnerships with M-Pesa have seen the birth of M-Kesho (Kesho being Tomorrow in Swahili) a partnership between Equity Bank and Safaricom which sees people able to save as little as 10 Kenya Shillings at a time. These innovative applications of what could be referred to as nano-finance are what’s led Africa as a leader in target- ing and profiting from what C.K. Prahalad defined as The Bottom of the Pyramid. To date, M-Pesa’s cumulatively transacted over 596.84 Billion Kenya Shillings – $7.123 Billion (US Dollars) in person-to-person transfers and transacts an estimated $500 Million a month, again in person-to-person money transfers. The maximum you can transact per person is less than $500 a day.

The outcome of this all is mobile money is a standard. Now all service providers in Kenya each have a mobile money platform, each with its nuanced approach. The success may not scale the same way in other African markets, but Kenya has proven the case for the mobile wallet and proven it doesn’t need a smart-phone to be a smart innovation.

Community

If we’re to look at how the mobile’s shaping community, we would look no further than South Africa, where the instant messaging network MXit’s revolutionised youth culture and social networking across the globe. What started out as an SMS-based game has evolved into a global mobile social network of over 27 million users with a bulk of those users in South Africa and over 120 other countries including 2.5 million users in Indonesia. As far as growth goes, they’re adding over 40,000 new users a day from across the world.

One phenomenal example would be Yoza, a series of short cellphone stories that were seeded and spread through MXit. The outcome in 2 months was 62,000 readers leading to over 40,000 comments. 50% of whom left comments after they’d read the content. Steve Vosloo Fellow for 21st Centurey Learning at The Shuttleworth Foundation and Project Leader on Yoza, describes the mobile phone as “the Kindle of Africa”. A sentiment that rings true from what we’ve seen with Yoza and other examples on MXit.

Through an initiative called MXit cares, the MXit platform has gone way beyond just sharing messages to delivering education in engaging and participatory ways to this large audience. Examples include students studying for their final exams in South Africa accessing a maths tutor on MXit and HIV/AIDS information and drug & substance abuse counselling. To put this in context, Europeans spend little more than 1% of their average monthly income on mobile communication, Africans spend 17.7%.

Culture

From South Africa, we take a trip to Ghana, where like many other countries in Africa, counterfeit drugs are a serious problem. For example, according to Bright Simons, an estimated 45% drugs in Nigeria are fake. The World Trade Organisation estimated that fake malaria drugs accounted for 100,000 African deaths a year. The estimated annual global losses to the pharmaceutical industry exceed $75 billion, and the fake drug industry is closely linked to organised crime. This is where mPedigree comes in.

Take this example, a patient walks into a pharmacist, buys drugs and scratches off a panel to reveal a 10-digit code. They send that number in an SMS message – which is free – using a short dialling code. Seconds later they get a text back confirming, or other- wise, the authenticity of those drugs. mPedigree vali-dates genuine medicines and brings clarity through one of the most basic of technologies. Started in Ghana and piloted in both Ghana & Nigeria, the rapid success of mPedigree has seen it spread to Kenya and soon to the rest of East Africa. “African mobile phone users do not have contracts,” says Mr. Bright Simons, Chief Strategist at mPedigree “They use top-up scratch cards. So people are very used to using scratch cards like this.” In addition to the health benefits and financial rewards, there is also the benefit of real-time information on drug consump- tion. The mPedigree data, which is routed to data centres in Ireland and Germany, provides a continuous picture of the pharmaceutical needs of the country allowing distribution companies to prevent shortages, and giving health professionals early warning of epidemics or unusual drug consumption patterns.

Each of these examples in their own respective ways apply culture, commerce and community and are success stories in their own right. The mobile platform is where Africa is writing the history books. From businesses building on mobile payment platforms to connect the web and the mobile phone to those tapping MXit’s API to create games and paid content, what we’re seeing is ecosystems and economies for innovation developing from the developing world.
The challenge with Africa is to change narratives internationally about the continent, to showcase success stories and to ignite that interest and the new Africa.

If we have a look at the web and what redefinitions Africa is promoting, we need not look further than the story behind Ushahidi. An extraordinary story whose genesis is traced back to a period during Kenya’s 2007/08 post election violence when blogger Ory Okolloh along with a team of volunteers including Erik Herman, David Kobia and Juliana Rotich developed a website to map incidents of violence and peace based on reports submitted via the web and mobile phone. This website had 45,000 users in Kenya, and was the catalyst which made us realize there was a need for a platform based on it which could be used by many others around the world. It was then that Ushahidi was born.
“Ushahidi”, which means “testimony” in Swahili, has gone on to become one of the world’s best used crowdsourcing platforms. Ushahidi has always been free and open-source and is developed, maintained and driven by a group of passionate volunteers from across the world, managed by Kenyans; a story in and of itself. Now, Ushahidi is a global success story in visualization, interactive mapping and crowdsourcing. From monitoring elections in India, Mexico, Tanzania, Burundi, to the earthquake in Haiti and more recently the Oil Spill in the United States, Erik Hersman, Ushahidi cofounder puts it well. “If it’ll work in Africa, it’ll work anywhere.”

The nexus for all things innovative in Kenya, and Africa at the moment has to be the innovation hubs. It’s hard to point to Kenya right now and not see how the *iHub – is at the forefront of innovation within the technology space. From hosting events with leading thought leaders from across the world to hosting their first set of Green Members – 100 of Nairobi’s most promising developers, creatives and business technologists. Described as an open space for technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers, this space is a tech community facility with a focus on young entrepreneurs, web and mobile phone programmers, designers and researchers. It is part open community workspace (co-working), part vector for investors and VCs and part incubator.

Such hubs, labs and co-working spaces are creating the physical structure to create sustainable environments for conception and execution across the continent from Limbe Labs in Cameroon to the Hive Colab in Uganda and Banta Labs in Senegal just to name a few. We have products being developed, launched and succeeding because of the role such spaces are playing in their localities.

The sum total of this brief journey takes us back to where we started this conversation. As we’ve just traversed the continent from East to South to West across Sub Saharan Africa we’ve seen just a handful of stories. There are plenty more to focus on or show- case, but it starts with your input. This has to be a conversation we carry and share between us – a conversation that we own.

It’s time we shaped the African narrative for the world. Politics is a reality, so are some of the development and infrastructure challenges we face, but we certainly are in a position to dictate the kind of stories that dominate the African brand. And now that we’re in a position to lead in emerging markets, WE must collaborate and exchange, share and build on what we have. You can be of service by spreading this message: carrying it, remixing it, orating it, spreading and retelling these success stories.

WE can keep this flame glowing. Will you?

As always, questions, comments, criticism welcome in the comments!

Photo by Mutua Matheka
  • http://mobilekenyahub.com Vera

    This a great article. The mobile industry in Kenya is very dynamic and insight you give in mobile commerce are really great. Will keep following.

    • http://www.mark.co.ke/ Mark Kaigwa

      Thanks, Vera.

      Much appreciated. So much is going on in the mobile side of things. Can’t wait to see where it all goes.

  • L Abel

    You should keep your eye on Bsmrt and Yesa and very soon Storyboxes!

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  • http://mobile-payments.jimdo.com/ emerging payments

    I have read the news that the 80% of the Africans people have give the satisfied respond when they asked about the security reasons for using the mobile banking. The number of people using the mobile banking is increasing day by day. People are also wondering to get the new phone having the best security facilities on the mobile thus to enjoy this facility freely, easily and without any afraid. Emerging technology thus in these days is mobile payment methods which provide the comfortable way to the customers.

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