Necessity & Invention: Africa’s story of mobile conquest & why utility beats ‘coolness’

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention and indeed that could perfectly describe Africa where it comes to innovation particularly on mobile.

Utility vs Coolness

In a great talk at TEDxVienna Alexander Oswald, Head of Marketing at Nokia, tells the story of how he and his family visited Kenya and were immensely shocked at just how much people in Kenya were able to accomplish via mobile phones. From sending and receiving money, to banking and paying for utilities & shopping from their phone, to the use of mobile in tracking the price of agricultural produce and even automatic insurance payments to your phone and getting notifications from your child’s school about their performance in an examination or them not attending school (phew)! And furthermore, all these were not being done from smartphones and really cool apps that just seemed to work magic, but in his words (paraphrased), “This works even on the ‘dumbest’ of phones”.

Alexander in his talk awes at these amazing inventions and makes comparison to the fact that despite his living in a world top 10 economy, he can’t get many of the same kind of services via mobile! Interestingly, Alexander, towards the end of the talk, concludes by stating that after 10 years in the mobile industry he has simply concluded that the top 10 economies simply have ‘too many resources’, and says, “The scarcity of the resources there brings out the best of people”; and he is right.

Why was MPESA such a success? Simply put – it was a necessity. Pre-MPESA (sounds like when someone asks ‘how did we ever survive without Google?’), people still had to do all the things that MPESA has enabled them to do.

Let’s put this in context. In Kenya, most of the working class are in urban areas, their parents likely live in rural areas. In the Kenyan culture, it is ordinary and even expected of one to take care of their parents and even their siblings once they are able to. This mostly means sending money back home to your parents for all sorts of things – their upkeep, your siblings school fees etc etc. Pre-MPESA people still had fairly ingenious ways of accomplishing this – from sending a relative home with the cash, to using bus services to send the cash, to mailing the cash sandwiched between carbon paper so someone handling the post does not see the money through the envelope and decide to pocket it.

MPESA simply solved a very real need that almost every (at least adult) Kenyan was facing, they did it simply – all you needed was a phone of whatever kind, even the infamous ‘mulika mwizi’ (Nokia 1100/1200 type of phone); they did it efficiently – MPESA agents are everywhere! and they did it at a reasonable cost to the consumer. Kenyans bought into it hook, line and sinker!

It all boils down to critical mass!

Still, while the cost of phones is coming down and lower cost phones are getting more features than your average ‘mulika mwizi’, the solutions that are really taking off are not so much the ‘cool’ apps but those that are solving real needs, at low cost and are accessible across all kinds of phones that means either utilise SMS or USSD.

In a discussion with a local expert on the issue, it came out that most Kenyans, particularly in rural areas are not even aware of what an ‘app’ really is!

Does this mean that there’s absolutely no market for smartphone apps locally? Nope. It doesn’t, it just means that if you want to make something that will gain massive adoption, fast, then your best bets are not with smartphone apps. Does it mean that there’s no market for simply ‘cool’ apps? Again not at all, as the expert I was talking with noted, entertainment for example, is also a need. Perhaps ‘cool’ smartphone apps may not be accessible to the majority, but one could definitely make a business by targeting the relevant demography.

On the other hand, for local app developers, there are also other markets that can be targeted that are not necessarily local. Who says you can’t develop something that catches on in the west? And there are also many opportunities to develop enterprise apps for corporate clients.

Throughout the world, the basic foundation of any technology success is based on finding a problem, a need, and solving it. This is what we’re doing in Africa. We have different use cases and cultures, which means that there will be many solutions. Some will only be valuable for local needs and won’t scale beyond the country or region. Others will go global. Both solutions are “right”. It’s not a failure to have a product that profitably serves 100 000 people instead of 100-million. (Erik Hersman)

All about the numbers

All the same, whether building for the ‘dumb’ phone or the smart phone, the success or failure of consumer facing mobile solutions always boils down to ‘how many people will download and use your app?’

Alexander gives a brilliant illustration of this during his talk by giving some numbers about the likelihood of people download and using smartphone apps regularly and as he notes, even with a substantial marketing budget, chances are you could end up only getting a minimal percentage of users to (a) know about your app (b) download it (c) use it once, and then use it again and again.

Path of least resistance

In conclusion, it would appear that the path of least resistance for local app developers looking to make a quick killing is still with creating ‘low tech’ solutions that are accessible to the majority and that solve a very real need in the consumer’s every day life. As Mbwana noted, ‘Let’s unleash SMS: Africa’s best distribution platform‘.