Improving Mobile Services for the Bottom of the Pyramid in Africa

By February 11, 2014Guest blog, MEF Africa

Jo Crawshaw

Africa has the fastest growing mobile market in the world and opportunities to use mobile technologies for social upliftment abound. More Africans have access to mobile phones that to clean water and by 2016, predictions indicate that approximately one billion people in Africa will have access to a handset. As a mobile-first (and often mobile-only) region, mobile is the perfect technological conduit to provide demand-driven, real-time information and services to a variety of audiences. However, there are numerous barriers that must be overcome if we are truly to see the full power for mobile used for positive socio-economic development. MEF Africa General Manager Jo Crawshaw writes…

‘Book-poor, mobile-rich’

Whilst literacy rates vary drastically across the continent, in some countries they’re as low as 22%. There is also a significant urban-rural divide, where literacy rates are notably lower in rural areas, generally combined with lower standards of living and with higher levels of poverty.  These are in fact the areas where ‘mobile for good’ initiatives can have such a dramatic impact. Before even arriving at the problem of local vernaculars and minority languages, we are faced with the fact that applications aimed at these markets are useless if they involve text.

Companies such as moWoza, which won our 2013 Meffy Award for Innovation in a Growth Market, uses pictures, symbols and colour-coding to help its customers sell and send their products. These kinds of tactics help improve access to useful mobile applications in rural Africa.

Furthermore, mobile is also being used to improve the problem of illiteracy itself– m-education initiatives, which focus on ‘book-poor but mobile-rich’ societies look to use mobile technologies to help improve education. From smart online learning environments to SMS-based help-sheets for teachers, it’s an area that continues to expand, with Africa being at the forefront of many innovations in this space.

Low-Cost Feature Phones Lead the Pack

If you’ve been to a ‘hackathon’ recently or spent time at the multitude of technology conferences, the likelihood is you would have seen that developers and businesses are all a-buzz about smartphones, and for good reason – the capabilities of the technologies are very exciting and access to such devices is definitely rising, with reports pointing to the fact that most African business people use smartphones. However, the vast majority of the African population uses feature phones with estimates suggesting that this figure is around 82% of African mobile users.

With data, airtime and the price of smartphones still prohibitively expensive for most, the culture of handing down feature phones until they’re unfixable is likely to continue. Projects aimed at bringing low-cost smartphones into the market, like the  4Afrika Initiative from Huawei and Microsoft are definitely headed in the right direction but at $150, it’s still over 4 months’ salary for nearly a third of Africans. Until smartphones cost less than $10, are built to last and hold their battery life, it’s difficult to see how this trend will change. That said, the burgeoning middle class in Africa with growing disposable income are the likely target market for so-called ‘smart feature phones’ such as those from Nokia’s Asha models, which retail at a lower cost than most other smartphones on the market.

2G: A Scarce Luxury

Whilst urban-dwelling professionals may be complaining about patchy LTE coverage, in most parts of the continent, being able to make a call without it dropping is a bonus and having 2G coverage, whilst slowly increasing, is still rare in many rural areas. Basic SMS and USSD code applications continue to reach the demographic and markets smartphones have yet to penetrate.

As MEF enters its second year in Africa, we’re excited to continue the important mission of working with members to drive African innovation and the growth of mobile content and commerce industry across all market segments. We continue to work with operators, content providers, banks and others from around the continent to tackle challenges, engage in knowledge sharing and evangelist opportunities of utmost importance to the industry.

Jo Crawshaw is MEF Africa’s General Manager. Follow her on Twitter. Visit the MEF website to find out more about MEF’s work in Africa, including the findings of an ongoing series of reports on mobile content and commerce trends across the continent, following on from the recent annual 13 country Global Consumer Survey and Insight Reports.

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