InfoDev’s Kenya Focus Group for a Mobile Applications Lab in Africa.
InfoDev is an NGO working within the World Bank that held a stakeholder focus group this week on the 27th April 2010. I attended the focus group which brought together mobile application developers, mobile operators and other stakeholders to brainstorm on the needs and rationale for a mobile applications lab for Africa. The focus group convened at the iHub and was the third such forum following others held in Kampala, Uganda and in Johannesburg, South Africa.
In addition to InfoDev, the concept of the African mobile applications lab is also being supported by Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Nokia. The African lab will be one of three in the world which will also include one in Asia and the other in Eastern Europe. The lab will also function as an incubator for mobile entrepreneurs in Africa. The following are some of the key questions that we’re discussed during the focus group:
- Does Africa need a mobile applications laboratory?
- What services should it provide?
- Where should it be located?
- What existing initiatives exist in this field?
- Which applications are likely to prove successful in Africa?
- With which partners should the lab work?
- What would be the measure of success?
These we’re some of the responses I was able to capture and document:
- iHub’s Jessica Colaco noted that she had organized a few mobile bootcamps at the Strathmore University a few years ago that had resulted in mobile application debeloper competitions. She noted that the mobile applications are tools for innovation and problem solving in Africa. She also noted that Africa needs low cost access to mobile information and services.
- The limits to innovation are really only limited to our imagination, Its important to find out the social structures in Africa for mobile applications as was the case in the success of the Apple iPhone. Safaricom’s M-Pesa is successful because it dealt with socio-economic issues – how about other areas that need addressing?
- The perception of a participant at the focus group was that East Africans we’re ahead of West Africans in terms of ICT4D as evidenced during a Twitter chat last week. An idea floated was that m-health could be used in a scenario for instance where a blood scan could be emailed to a Doctor via a mobile application anywhere in the world for diagnosis and treatment.
- Mxit is a mobile application and/or mobile social network that has done extremely well in South Africa so we should not under estimate the importance of mobile applications for entertainment in Africa. Which applications are likely to prove successful in Africa? m-payments? m-health? m-education? m-agriculture? m-security? m-government?
- Safaricom representative Wadzanai Chioita said, “M-Pesa is successful because it serves as a virtual bank for people in Kenya who do not have access to formal banking services. In addition, it also enables financial transactions for the unbanked population and is also much more convenient compared to more traditional informal financial services that they had used prior to M-Pesa”.
- Insurance could be an ideal area for mobile applications when looking at the success of M-Pesa as far as financial services are concerned. A suggestion was that the “Chama” (i.e. the popular collective model of informal group financial savings in Kenya) could be a target for a a mobile application that streamlines operations. Could Chama be systemized using the mobile phone and applications? Quite possibly!
- Mobile applications in Africa work when they solve a BIG problem for many people. However, M-Pesa has not (yet?) been successful in other markets due to the fact that there are stronger regulations than is the case in Kenya noted a participant at the focus group – this is what is holding it back elsewhere.
- Regulation can enable or disable mobile applications succeeding in Africa. Equity Bank’s success in microcredit in Kenya shows that there is opportunity at the bottom of the pyramid. Could the mobile be leveraged for microcredit focussed applications? Education is another area that could be enabled via mobile applications by using it as a channel for m-learning.
- It would be important to create an ecosystem of stakeholders to make mobile applications? Millennium Villages in Western Kenya are using mobile phones to successfully collect health data in the field for instance. The African mobile applications lab will be open so that the application developer owns his/her applications at the end of the development process -Â which can then eventually be commercialized.
- Its envisaged that the African mobile applications lab will provide technical and business skills to application developers. There needs to be clear distinction between mobile applications for social good and others for commercial gain. What about when literacy is a problem for the beneficiaries of mobile applications? Could, for instance, speech recognition and voice commands be used to access a mobile application?
- Mobile notification services could be another area that would thrive for mobile applications. Dorothy Ooko of Nokia talked about Nokia Eduction Delivery which is a successful mobile education project in Tanzania. Teachers use Nokia N series mobile devices to run classes by projecting content for the class. This enables high quality education in rural areas via high speed mobile networks and applications, which has never been possible the past.
- Its important to think of mobile application opportunities being useful beyond urban Africa so as to rural Africa. Low cost and low bandwidth mobile applications will be especially key for Africa. When Africa is given opportunities like M-Pesa where its the first to be served (globally), its possible for it to become the leader in a specific innovation in mobile applications.
- The work to be done by the mobile applications lab in Africa will also include agriculture focussed solutions that improve social aspects of the sector. M-Government applications could include an application for applying for and processing immigration paperwork.
- Kaburo Kobia of the Kenya ICT Board noted that they are already working with a company which is digitizing content for varies ministries of the government, including immigration. Going forward, the Kenya ICT Board wants to work with mobile application developers to integrate this content on the mobile channel.
Additional key questions for the mobile applications lab in Africa that we’re floated at the focus group were:
- Should it be local or networked?
- Should the lab be physical or virtual?
- What services should the lab offer to be self sustaining?
- With which partners should the lab work?
- What would be the measure of success?
- How can it serve Africa as a whole?
- What business models are likely to work?
Some of the responses that I managed to capture we’re as follows:
- Dorothy Ooko of Nokia expressed concern that there is serious business capacity lacking in Kenya has they had seen in the Calling All Innovators competition organized by Nokia. She noted that whereas Kenyan application developers submitted ideas/apps as individuals, South African application developers organized themselves into companies which would enable them to secure funding more easily. We need not only good developers but also developers with business-focussed skills.
- Crowdsourcing could be key factor in driving the development and uptake of mobile applications in Africa by lowering the barriers to entry. A Nokia representative talked about the University of Nairobi’s Nokia sponsored mobile applications lab which aims to act as a low-cost outsourcing centre for mobile applications development for Kenyan and Global clients.
- The commercial opportunity for the bottom of the pyramid could be more lucrative than the middle and top of the pyramid. The revenue per user is small but the volume is huge. The example given for Nairobi’s Kibera slum which has 1+ million residents. If a mobile application could be used for Kes. 1.00 per day that would be more than Kes. 30.00 million a month in revenue – there is a solid business case in this respect. The best part is that it could be commercially viable and socially good at the same time.
- Android and iPhone apps are “cool” but the basic mobile apps could be much bigger for Africa. Academia is another area that was touched on. Could mobile apps act as a tool for collaboration across African borders.