Thursday, January 13, 2011

Part 2: Apps for Africa: Mobile Cloud Computing to Accelerate Innovation

Every cloud has a silver lining, a lining that emits beams of hope onto the continent it traverses. Africa's horizon has seen many clouds that have only passed on to deliver rains to the rest of the world. However, one cloud spread across the African continent, breathing a new hope of life on a part of the world that has always been referred to as a dark continent. That cloud is called the mobile cloud.

Mobile cloud computing is not a new trend in Africa, having first been introduced on the continent by the several mobile network operators. Services such as mobile banking and mobile money transfer have been around for over 3 years, operating on a private cloud computing framework that was tied to each network operator. These services have revolutionized mobile computing, delivering services that had long been a myth to many Africans. The advent of such services has had a far reaching reception pattern, creating trade links between the rural poor. In the biggest part of Africa, banking institutions are fragmented, without a reliable interconnected backbone that can facilitate trade and commercial transactions. And worse still, computer usage is very low in Africa, making it even harder to facilitate such transactions.

However, with the installation of the sea cable that had the first phase connecting the coastal countries to the global broadband infrastructure, fast internet cable is now being extended to the inland countries, providing a more reliable and faster internet link for both desktop and mobile internet users. The high penetration rate of cellular technologies will grow even faster with the adoption of fast internet on the continent. Mobile phones will therefore remain the preferred communication gadget in Africa.

The advent of fast internet will therefore leverage the existing services and provide a wider reaching cloud platform for building and deploying cloud-hosted applications. Even before the fast internet cable spreads to most of Africa, mobile application developers are already building solutions to take advantage of these new developments.

Microfinance Institutions to tap into the cloud:
RedCloud Technologies, the company behind the hugely successful M-PESA money transfer service in Kenya is already completing work on a project that will see micro-finance institutions connect to the M-PESA service, disbursing loans to their clients, improving cash flow management, helping the borrower repay the loan simply and cheaply without queuing in the bank using mobile money transfer, and getting the approved loan and money faster into the hands of the micro-entrepreneur. This project will provide support to customers with low-end phones using SMS technology, and high-end phones/ smart phones using a web-based application. The project will also provide support for loans officers that would like to use the web application option in areas with limited or no network coverage. The loans officer simply saves the loan application information and then posts it to a remote database when they move to places with network coverage.

Strategic partnerships between industry and academia:
Safaricom, Kenya's largest mobile network operator and Strathmore University, a leading private university in Nairobi partnered this year to launch an initiative dubbed the “Safaricom Academy”. The initiative aims at developing young talent to create employment through the development of mobile applications that are relevant to the local Kenyan mobile user. The main goals of the Safaricom academy are:
  • Promote local innovation in developing relevant applications for the Kenyan market.
  • Create an enabling environment for the development of relevant mobile applications.
  • Attracting companies with applications to host them within the Safaricom portal.
This initiative will see more local content and mobile applications developed and hosted on cloud-based marketplaces.

Developer bootcamps:
Many developer initiatives have sprung up in the past two years. In Kenya, iHub (Innovation Hub) seeks to link technologists, innovators and investors. In Uganda, the HiveColab is working with local developers to help them nurture their ideas through provision of workspace, hardware and developer tools. All these are initiatives that have also helped some small companies find seed funding from venture capitalists and big industry players such as Nokia. Virtual City, a Nairobi-based mobility solutions company, received a 1 million dollar award from Nokia after winning a global competition for building innovative mobile applications.

These initiatives are continuing to grow and spread across Africa, showing a positive market response to the adoption of relevant innovative mobile solutions on the continent.

In part 3, we shall focus on the future of the mobile cloud and what it holds for Africa in the next five years.

Africa and the Mobile Handset Series

Africa's mobile market is the fastest growing in the world, growing at twice the global rate. 1
A consistent market growth can be witnessed with the rapid innovation of new products and solutions for the African mobile user by mobile carriers and content developers. In this part of the series: Africa and the mobile handset, we shall delve into details of mobile subscription in Africa, mobile internet that is currently the major focus for most mobile carriers and the recent trends in mobile service(s) pricing.

Africa has over 260 million mobile subscribers, with at least 27 in every 100 people owning a mobile phone. In North Africa, 53 out of 100 people own mobile phones, while in South Africa, at least 87 out of 100 people own mobile phones. 2 Mobile subscription penetration rates are expected to exceed 40% by the end of 2010, according to an International Telecommunications Union report released last year.

Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) in Africa are taking advantage of their IP-based data networks to extend internet services to users of internet-capable mobile phones. Partnerships between MNOs, web companies and handset manufacturers are already being created. A recent partnership was made between Huawei Telecom, Google and Kenya-based Safaricom to introduce a fairly priced Android phone for the Kenyan mobile market. The Huawei Ideos was launched this year in Nairobi and it will be retailing at approximately 100 US dollars. The launch of the Huawei Ideos followed an announcement earlier this year in Kenya at the Gkenya event to open the Android market for Kenyan developers to publish both free and paid mobile apps for the Android market. All these developments are positive indicators of a growing market that is still fairly developed but has high potential for investors.

Mobile internet usage in Africa is on the rise, and in some developed markets like South Africa, innovative products such as Mxit, an Instant Messaging application, are more popular than facebook. In Nigeria, mobile internet usage has surpassed computer internet usage with up to 7.3 million Nigerians browsing the internet using their mobile phones. The adoption of internet-capable phones in Africa is also on the rise as the prices for high-end feature phones and smart phones continue to drop globally.

While mobile internet usage in Africa continues to grow, mobile data charges have dropped drastically. These prices will even drop further as mobile network operators expand their data infrastructure across the continent, courtesy of the undersea fibre-optic cable that has now reached many African countries. The fibre-optic cable extension has also increased connectivity speeds which had greatly slowed down the adoption of internet services on the continent. In Uganda, data charges were as high as 1 dollar per MB of data. In less than one year, prices have dropped to as low as 10 dollars for a 350 MB mobile data package.

However, the major challenge with the adoption of mobile internet in Africa is that there is not a lot of content that is available online that suits the African context. African societies are fragmented, and the lack of a common language makes it very hard to develop universal content or information. It would require content and application developers to translate their products into so many languages. There's a need to develop language translation systems for African languages.

In part two of the series, we shall delve into the growth of the mobile applications market in Africa, building mobile applications and content for Africa, and how innovative mobile applications can be relevant to the African mobile user.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Smartphones and The Facebook Factor

Facebook has continued to dominate the social networking sphere, cutting across all continents, while providing a platform that meets the unique social needs of different global cultures. In Africa, Facebook has even been seen to drive the adoption of smartphones , especially among the technology savvy youth. This trend seems to fit perfectly in Africa's budding mobile data market, indicating an increasing demand for social applications as the world embraces the benefits of a digital age. Smartphones and facebook have been around for less than ten years, but the rapid influence they have on our social culture is something that cannot be ignored.

As social networking continues to dominate communication over the internet, smartphones will continue to replace the less capable low-end feature phones that don't have support for web browsing and instant messaging. Applications such as ebuddy will be favorites among today's youth. Initiatives such as facebook zero will continue to come up to tap into the rapidly growing mobile internet market. As mobile network operators prepare for a new battlefield i.e the mobile data market, smartphone prices will drop sharply. (The Huawei Ideos is a perfect example of a subsidized smartphone).

The facebook factor therefore, will remain a major driving force for smartphone sales and intuitive applications that leverage social networking in Africa and the world over.