Cellphone Ubuntu

2013-06-05 09:30

You might find your cellphone a necessary evil – but for many it’s a crucial tool for health and wellbeing. In fact, the mobile revolution in Africa is changing the way we care.

There are more than 450 million cellphones in Africa today – almost one phone for every two people on the continent. Experts say this is contributing to a revolution in the economy, politics and society as a whole.

Africa used to stand in relative isolation from the rest of the world because of poverty and inadequate infrastructure, but now millions of people can connect to the global information and trade network.

In a video interview with PolitySA, Alan Knott-Craig Jr, former director of Mxit, said mobile technology is the difference between people trying to get something done 20 years ago, and things happening immediately today.

Andrew Maunder, a computer scientist and mobile entrepreneur whose PhD research focused on mobile technology in Africa, explains the excitement about the explosion of cellphones across Africa.

‘The growth in sales of mobile devices in Africa is phenomenal. You must remember that these phones aren’t just telephones – they have computer power. It’s a small computer in a person’s hand that unlocks a world of possibilities.’

Big corporations, of course, see potential to make money from this emerging market, but there’s also potential for social and economic development. Andrew believes that mobile technologies can make a substantial contribution to positive changes for people living in poverty.

‘Looking at the developed world, we already know mobile technology can be used for entertainment, to support businesses and to improve health care. In Africa there is further potential for mobile techonology to help with improvements in agriculture, government, education, personal finance and infrastructure.’

According to a report on mobile technology in Africa by Blycroft, a UK-based telecommunications research company, one of the big differences between the use of mobile technology in Africa and the rest of the world is that it’s driven by need and not convenience.

Revolutionary technology, such as Kenya’s M-Pesa (a system that enables mobile money transfers without the need of a bank) and Ushahidi (a network through which a community can share vital information during crisis times via SMS), has set the international standard and proves innovative products can also be exported from Africa to the rest of the world.

As Africa’s natural resources are becoming scarcer, it’s becoming more important to offer intellectual capital and innovative products to the rest of the world.

With almost everyone in Africa seizing mobile technology with both hands, it has a good chance to become the first continent to enter the post-computer world.

Mxit: South Africa’s first big success story

Mxit is the first example on everyone’s lips when you ask about South African success stories on the mobile web.

It’s the biggest social network in Africa and has done groundbreaking work in the development of mobile technology that’s specifically aimed at consumers in our context.

Mobile entrepreneur Andrew Maunder attributes Mxit’s success to the fact it offered a more affordable alternative to SMS communication in the days before (free) Facebook, BBM, WhatsApp and iMessage.

Its long-term impact, however, is due to innovative practices that were far ahead of the times.

‘Mxit was specifically developed for mobile devices. It was able to monetise its service by charging small amounts for micro-transactions, eventually making a huge amount of money because of the number of users,’ Andrew says.

Mxit was also exceptionally popular because the software works on almost any phone.

‘Mxit did the hard groundwork to develop an infrastructure that could work on all phones and now makes it easy for external developers to write their own apps within that ecosystem. They sold digital content and nurtured an environment where brands connected with users by chatting – forerunning the way Facebook does marketing these days.’

Mxit in numbers:

750 Million

  • The number of messages sent per day via the Mxit network.

60 000km

  • The distance the row would stretch if every message was written on a Post-it note – that’s one-and-a-half times around the earth!

50 Million

  • The number of Mxit users worldwide.

87 Minutes

  • The average time Mxit users spend online weekly.

Kuza: Support for micro-entrepreneurs

Kuza Mobile is a platform specially designed for basic cellphones that helps buyers and sellers in developing markets trade their goods and services.

Pieter Nel and Andrew Maunder developed this service in 2011 to help micro-businesses grow.

With Kuza, users can create an online profile in five minutes to market their product or service. According to Pieter, the effective sharing of information is crucial to the success of a micro-business.

‘For single-person traders or producers, opportunities are often time critical. Trade is very localised due to lack of efficient transport, and traders rely on physical interaction to be able to showcase their work or goods.’

With Kuza, traders can create micro-advertisements that are broadcast immediately to other users in their area.

While Pieter and Andrew are tweaking the product, Kuza is steadily gaining more users.

Ummeli: No more unemployment

Ummeli (a Nguni word for ‘mediator’ or ‘bridge’), the brainchild of Shikoh Gitau, is a mobisite that tackles unemployment.

Shikoh, a Kenyan computer scientist, spent lots of time in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, to find out exactly how people live there and what their needs are.

‘I found out that a lot of people had internet-enabled cellphones but didn’t realise just how powerful a tool it was. I taught people how to browse, email and do basic searches. After a few weeks, a pattern started emerging: people would ask me for help with applying for jobs they had seen on their cellphones.’ So the seed was planted and Shikoh started developing Ummeli.

According to Lauren Kotzé, who manages Ummeli on behalf of the Praekelt Foundation, it can easily cost R50 to apply for a single job if people have to pay for an internet cafe, photocopies and faxing. ‘For people living in poverty and who are in most cases unemployed, that’s unaffordable.’

Ummeli allows users to create a professional CV by completing a basic form, asking simple, leading questions, directly on their cellphone.

The CV can then be sent from the cellphone to potential employers via fax or email, and copies of ID and other documents can be attached. Users can search for jobs and opportunities to develop their skills on the Ummeli website, and even list job offers they become aware of.

Ummeli also has an agreement with Vodacom that gives all its customers 100% free access to the site, even if they don’t have airtime.

Ummeli currently has 150 000 users – without spending a cent on marketing.

‘We trust 100% in the word-of-mouth marketing of our users,’ Lauren says.

Praekelt projects

The Praekelt Foundation is a hotbed for mobile technology that aims to improve conditions for people living in poverty.

Their projects include Young Africa Live, a social network with more than one million users that provides educational entertainment to teenagers around the theme of relationships in the time of HIV; and TxtAlert, a product that reminds people via SMS about their antiretroviral treatment appointments.

Appointments can be rescheduled by sending a free ‘please call me’ to the clinic. (There are also similar products to determine whether medication is counterfeit and to remind people to take their prescription medicine on time.)

Praekelt also has products that support farmers in The Gambia with the cultivation and sale of harvests, and an SMS service in Kenya to discourage violence during elections.


Unique ubuntu

A cellphone is a symbol of the building of communities and the ability to communicate with your family and other people. According to Lauren Kotzé, mobile technology gives people the opportunity to live the spirit of ubuntu.

‘It’s fascinating to see how people share opportunities on the Ummeli site. Instead of just looking for a job for themselves, the attitude is that the entire community can benefit if someone finds employment – the principle of ubuntu in action. People who find out about job opportunities share it on the community board so other people also have a chance to apply. I think it’s uniquely African and very special, and we encourage it.’

What does technology for Africa look like?

Lauren, above, explains the Praekelt Foundation’s guidelines for developing technology specifically for people living in poverty:

  • Cost is crucial. The service must be free, or cost as little as possible.
  • Mobile technology is a must, because people in rural areas and townships have little or no access to computers.
  • The mobisite must be light (it must use little data) and easy to read on even the smallest, most basic phone screen.
  • It must keep in mind the users’ technological skill and culture.

And the future?

According to Andrew Maunder, technology that supports education and entrepreneurship will be important in developing countries. ‘Access to e-books and apps will help teachers and pupils gain access to valuable and necessary teaching resources in the classroom and at home.’

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