Mobile content- Africa making progress despite challenges

Saturday February 16 2013

By RUSSELL SOUTHWOOD Special Correspondent

Time was when the best content you could get in Africa was SMS services brought in from Europe or the USA.

Now with the spread of smartphones and feature phones, there’s more variety available including an increasing amount of local content. This was reflective at the recently concluded WSA Mobile Content 2.0 Awards in Abu Dhabi.

The WSA Mobile Awards are a global initiative that awards local apps that have global relevance. It looks both for commercially interesting apps as well as those that are socially relevant.

The event combines a series of pitch sessions for shortlisted entrants and a thoughtful conference. The whole thing is capped with an awards ceremony for the winners.

Many of these ecosystem-encouraging events in Africa are full of apps that have been developed that are nice ideas but nearly always lack users. 

However, at the WSA Mobile awards, all the apps that have significant user bases either on iOS or Android, or both. Often they are highly successful in one country and eminently “exportable” or they are already making an international impact.

The entrants combined a number of apps that are a “bit like” other things and some that were genuine originals.

All of these winning apps are essentially designed for smart devices; whether pads, phones or TVs. So this is where Africa bumps its head against the first major challenge.

If you imagine phone handset use as a pyramid, then the sharp end of that pyramid at the top will be the 3-5 per cent who use smartphones. There will then be approximately 20-30 per cent who use feature phones that have Internet access.

The majority who make up the rest will have basic phones: Voice and SMS… sometimes a torch. So the majority of people will only be able to receive either voice services or something in 160 characters as a text SMS.

For most developed countries, the smartphone is dominant but for many developing countries, it is only a small but growing part of the market.

Until African operators and the content ecosystem developers start to think more strategically, the global opportunity these kinds of apps offer may be stillborn.

Southwood is the CEO of Balancing Act, a consultancy and research company focused on telecoms, Internet and broadcast in Africa