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CEO Weekends: Why African Developers Have no Chance on Mobile

Image:designhack.net
Image:designhack.net

By David Okwi, Editor in Chief Dignited.com (formerly Techpost.ug)

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We’ve heard it time and again how Africa is touted as a “mobile-first” continent from numerous blog posts and mobile conferences. In fact, basing on success stories such as Kenya’s M-pesa, some have even gone to greater length of calling Africa a “mobile-only” space.

There’s no doubt that mobile is big in Africa. The continent has been hailed for leapfrogging the technological evolutionary curve by embracing mobile technologies that bring affordable communication and financial services even in the remotest parts of the continent. Mobile operators have contributed significantly to the GDPs of African countries. For instance, in Uganda, MTN Uganda is the biggest tax contributor beating oil companies like shell and Total.

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Yet, with such optimism in the industry, developers have no chance of eating some of the pie!

Mobile is not like the web

I know they won’t tell you this at any of those mobile conferences, but mobile in Africa isn’t anywhere close to how the web works. What made a startup like Facebook in 2004 start from a university dormitory and rapidly grow into the biggest communication property in the world valued for billions of dollars is because it’s an internet-based company. The internet was designed from the ground up to be more open and scalable giving everyone equal opportunity. Nobody entirely controls unlike mobile where the entire system right from customer relations, billing, infrastructure is jealously guarded by one or two mobile operators. Zuck didn’t have to first sign contracts, know someone who knows someone at some Telecom. No. He simply developed the idea and rolled out it out within weeks of inception to test whether or not it would succeed before committing more resources to the project. That couldn’t possibly happen if Facebook was to be a mobile service running on Safaricom or MTN. Zuck perhaps wouldn’t even get past the security point with his casual hoodies.

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Telecoms  are closed

The telecoms are the sole gatekeepers of mobile ecosystem in Africa. This week, I attended a talk on the opportunities available to developers if they leveraged on smart card technologies with platforms such as Java Card. The speaker, Robert from Thoughtworks Uganda argued that developers could create limitless applications on smart cards like Simcards creating a whole new world of possibilities around the mobile sector. With Apps pre-installed on Sim Cards, mobile users could surf the web even from feature phones without internet capabilities, subscribers could have access to healthcare services, eCommerce, finance, Agriculture etc. How cool would that be, uh? Very cool.

The problem is, developers have no means of integrating their third party Apps on these Sim Cards. Only the Telecoms do. Even if one had an application, it would involve recalling all the Sim Cards out there to dish out new ones with new applications pre-installed as was the case when MTN first rolled out its mobile money service. Now, what are the odds that a carrier would accept recalling all the simcards of its customers out there just to install your App? Very remote.

How about the App stores?

Yes, I know you must be asking, “Okay David how about the App stores? Didn’t they break the previously closed gates?”. The answer is Yes. The App stores did in fact disrupt the telecom industry thanks to Apple with the iPhone. To me, the stores present a beacon of hope to African developers who can now make some bucks off their work. The stores work much like the web as publishing an App is as easy as registering for a developer account with the respective platforms and pushing your App to the respective stores. Further more publishing an App to the store gives developers access to not just the local market, but the global market of more than a billion mobile users.

The challenge is the App ecosystem is still premature albeit some progress already being made. Apps run on smartphones which aren’t yet ubiquitous in the African market although this will change in the next 5 years or so. However, the other challenge is that Apps require data as their lifeblood, which data costs still remain to be off the roof in the continent. The good news about these challenges is that unlike what I’ve already talked about, they won’t last for long.

The Telecoms have played dirty tricks with developers and I couldn’t find any better example than the nasty case where Paul Bagyenda from Digital solutions Uganda had to sue MTN Uganda in 2004 for supposedly “stealing” his idea which enabled peer-to-peer Airtime sharing. Instead of  working with third party service providers, the telecom instead wanted it all to itself. About 3 years ago, I also embarked on an idea that required plugging into the Telecom networks for some functionality to work. Unfortunately, I had to close the project after failing to reach an agreement with the carriers despite my fruitless efforts to contact them on several accounts. My ordeal isn’t just unique to me. I’ve met and spoken to several other frustrated developers who couldn’t go ahead with their ideas simply because the Telecoms didn’t see them as good enough. A promising locally developed “Whatsapp” didn’t get past its first year after the developer narrated to me how a pricing tweak by a local Telecom tremendously affected the Apps business model. It’s because such stories that you’ll not hear of any success story other than those backed by the Telecoms themselves such as Kenya’s M-Pesa.

Mobile App ecosystem together with the web in my view as not just a Tech blogger, but also an internet entrepreneur gives developers much more opportunity than the overly hyped mobile industry.

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David Okwii is the EIC TechPost (now Dignited) and is based in Kampala, Uganda. You can follow him on Twitter: @oquidave, @dignited and read more of his posts at www.dignited.com

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