A recent GSMA report stated that Africa is currently the second biggest market for mobile in the world. This means that there is huge innovation potential in terms of mobile technology application development, as well as creating solutions (think access to information, ability to transfer money, creating jobs) for the more than 649 million handset owners on the continent.
As part of my research I’ve been investigating the mobile tech space in South Africa and Kenya as well as the developer communities in both countries. It is interesting to see how many differences (and surprising similarities) there are in terms of mobile usage and user statistics.
This infographic by Ivan Colic was published in July this year and gives a thought-provoking overview of smartphone vs feature phone penetration in Africa.
The (software) developer community in Kenya is in its infant stages, with lots of young computer science students obtaining their degrees from European universities and then returning home to re-invest their skills in the country. The opposite is mostly true for developers in South Africa, where engineers obtain their degrees here, and then move overseas to gain international experience and work for huge corporations in America and Europe.
What struck me while I was chatting to developers in Nairobi, is that they’re much more “solution for the people” focused as opposed to developing cool technologies that are sometimes immitating international apps, and not necesarily apps that will improve people’s lives. It is interesting to note that there are currently 8 million smartphones (and growing at a phenomenal rate) in South Africa, with a much smaller percentage in Kenya. Developers in Kenya still develop mostly for feature phones. That’s why a platform like Mocality is agnostic to the client platform. Mocality is a business listing app that launched in Nairobi early in 2010 and already have 67,000 users [update: Mocality has 67,000 member businesseslisted on the directory]. According to Mocality CEO, Stefan Magdalinski, “This is the Mocality reality: RIM, Android, Apple are 2% of usage.” [update: According to Mocality CEO, Stefan Magdalinski, “Mocality Kenya now (at November 2011) sees about 21% of our traffic from Android devices.”]
The biggest concentration of software (and by implication, mobile app) developers, are based in Nairobi. One could compare this ecosystem with the developer community in Silicon Cape. Most developers in Kenya, however, spend time at the iHub. The iHub is Nairobi’s Innovation Hub for the technology community and is an open space for the technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in the area.
I had the privilege to meet the founder of the iHub, Erik Hersman, in Nairobi and I recently asked him (via twitter and e-mail) what he thought the differences are between Kenya and South Arica in terms of the mobile ecosystem.
“I’d say the biggest difference that I can point out is that it seems like there are more products made for a global market coming out of South Africa, as opposed to more regionalized products coming out of Kenya. The focus is different, not better or worse, just different. South Africa tends to have more restrictive telecom and banking regulations, which I think have lead to less innovation in these spaces. Kenya has had a much friendlier regulator, allowing innovative mobile money products to develop. South Africa has more money and better infrastructure than Kenya, more developers too, yet somehow Kenya seems to have a better position on innovation in the mobile space (though not the web).”
Looking at the future of mobile in Africa, I asked Erik what kind of technology he’d invest in: “I’d double down on mobile money solutions, both on the peer-to-peer and merchant-to-consumer sides. This is what the users want, so the products will find their way to market.”
Most developers in Nairobi are under the impression that we are light years ahead of them in South Africa in terms of our technological innovations. I would go as far as to say that yes, we are privileged in terms of technological experience, but that we will definitely need to adopt Kenyan developers’ outlook on building solution-oriented apps for the more than 80% of people who still rely on feature phones to communicate, share and transact.
*This article was updated on 13 December 2011 with more accurate statistics on Mocality in Kenya.