SMS, USSD and the mobile web: Zimbabwe is not that country

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At least not totally.

It was just a few months ago, sitting with the CEO who had moved back into the country after working as a successful starter-up in the US. The interview part hadn’t started and I was shaking a bit (he had come to pick me up in a classy vehicle and drove me to his classy house so yes I’m not used to being so..I don’t know). He was narrating his experiences in the States and how you could earn big from the silliest of apps or nothing from a huge idea. Then he leaned forward, reached in his pocket and brought out a monochrome phone and said “If you want to be big in Africa, you can’t go wrong with mobile. This is the only way. The regular guy knows SMS…[bla bla bla]“. I nodded and shook (50-50). He was definitely not the first to tell me this, and wasn’t the last but I wasn’t and still am not convinced.

Maybe in Kenya: yes; and according to big shots in first world countries who visualize an Africa with naked kids chasing cows and only the father owns a cellular phone: yes. I’ll speak for the countries I’m more familiar with which are Zimbabwe & South Africa. To date, as Facebook publicly tells everyone, there’s been over a million unique check-ins for the Harare location only and these are by those who actually bothered to check-in. If you think only SMS & USSD will sell, think again.

Zimbabwe has jumped phases. Remember that the average person has never owned a dial up internet connection. They first got Econet Wireless’ 3G then moved on to using broadband from Africom et al. That same person can get an Android smartphone for just $100 only (and set to be below $50 in a year or two according to Huawei). Also the (very) low cost Asian phones that have flooded the local markets – thank heavens for these – have made the web so accessible to, well, everyone: love it or hate it. As an aside you should really consider getting one of those; Loud music, TV, flash light, Opera Mini, eBuddy and a metallic finish all in a gadget that costs next to nothing. Long as you don’t answer it barefoot whilst it charges.

I don’t know if we should attribute this trend to high literacy levels or cheap phones or the fame of the Masasi Pages on Facebook (A Zimbabwean version of the “Things xxx Say” pages), but that is the trend.

Of course not everyone is on Facebook, not even in Palo Alto California where Faceboo is headquartered. Applications such as eTXT which allow Facebooking from phones that cannot connect to the internet ironically require that you would have opened a Facebook account already, and the service itself is configured on the eTXT website, which means whoever is using eTXT has used the internet elsewhere but is having a hard time getting an internet capable phone. Or maybe like me enjoys getting inbox notifications when he/she is offline.

So ladies and gentleman, this our country of intellects deserves a better class of startups. I and those who second me will develop using WML (Wireless Markup Language, the programming we used just two years ago to create mobile websites, phased out) if we have to so that we accommodate the cheapest of the Chinese phones, but won’t fall to the doctrine of SMS & USSD. You can build successful ventures around SMS & USSD that I acknowledge but don’t be fooled into thinking people are reading Techzim articles on USSD: although that would be cool.

The other trend I’ve noticed about the local people is that they are extremely picky and do not fall for anything that is not of worthy to them. We learned this the (very) hard way from some half-hearted projects we launched a few years ago. It’s probably the early exposure to Facebook, Twitter and other polished online services that has made them to expect highly of any commercialised online service presented to them. To our surprise, the trivial startups sold like hot cakes and cost the paying companies thousands, which maybe why the Masasi Pages on Facebook have five-figure “Likes” whilst businesses struggle to get a few hundred. What we may say to be lacking on a continental level are ambitious entrepreneurs coupled with skilled application and web developers who can tap into this largely untouched market.

But of course I could be wrong. So fire away in the comments.

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  • http://profile.yahoo.com/DEMB6QUSPJ7VPSDMA37XI3AEEU Loveness

    said the city boy.

  • Maxel

    didn’t quite get this
    “the other trend I’ve noticed about the local people is that they are extremely picky and do not fall for anything that is not of worthy to them…   To our surprise, the trivial startups sold like hot cakes and cost the paying companies thousands, which maybe why the Masasi Pages on Facebook have five-figure “Likes” whilst businesses struggle to get a few hundred.”

    what happened with your startup?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Richwell-Captain-Phinias/610331826 Richwell Captain Phinias

    Should I read again? Didn’t quite get the gist of this article. For a moment I thought I was going to hear the complete story on the start upper CEO and his new or old start ups.

  • D Esq

    I agree, the author did not really say anything, I was left thinking “whats your point?”…

  • Mhondoro yekwa

    I got his point which is for enterprenuers to not launch their projects using SMS and USSD as delivery channels. His points are somewhat valid but here’s where i disagree with him. if Zimbabwe’s mobile penetration is 75% but internet users are only 11% (last i checked) then SMS and USSD applications still have a much much bigger market than web applications even if these web applications are coded in WML (whatever that is) to incorporate the chinese fakes. But then not many have the skills to deliver content via SMS and USSD and to be fair, delivering content there means talking to Econet first. Econet won’t just let you  send SMS content without giving them cash, so there you are…

  • http://www.techzim.co.zw L.S.M. Kabweza

    i find the point in the first paragraph, and the rest being the justification of that point:

    “If you want to be big in Africa, you can’t go wrong with mobile. This is the only way. The regular guy knows SMS…[bla bla bla]“. I nodded and shook (50-50). He was definitely not the first to tell me this, and wasn’t the last but I wasn’t and still am not convinced.

  • Infinisys

    i agree, last time i checked zim had the highest literacy rate in africa, i also have a feeling they prefer internet based apps to sms, because it makes sense, its cheaper and there is more fucntionality in web apps. Im a developer and im striving to launch startups with quality and usefulness, my latest one http://www.credflex.co.zw, 
    http://www.zbc.co.zw/news-categories/business/17107-credit-reference-bureau-launched-.html. Need help marketing the idea to lenders

  • nyacent

    interesting..

  • http://twitter.com/Rufarod Rufaro Dhliwayo

    It is a perspective. I kind of get the article. Here is my 2 cents, mass market isn’t the only market that exists in Zimbabwe. Its the easiest to target and make money out of, but the other markets can lead to newer audiences. How long it will take for that minority to grow is the question.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Richwell-Captain-Phinias/610331826 Richwell Captain Phinias

     thanx for the explanation

  • takunda

    True

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1318248 Tendekai Muchenje

     looked at your credflex site, could tie into something we worked on last year and will resume in June. could you send me a quick not with your details so we can be in touch? tendie87 {at} hotmail dot com

  • Prosper Chikomo

    This USSD thing which i gather you say still has some market vs web applications…Well, right now…I went to a couple of telecoms companies and what one very big telecom company told me was that it was having a big problem with “USSD”. That was 3 or so weeks ago when i was told that, and they were saying they are moving from that system to a different one.

  • Prosper Chikomo

    Facebook “likes” mean nothing. They are not the same as credit card carrying customers. Anyone, even someone with no purchasing power at all can “like” a page.

    I ABSOLUTELY AGREE WITH YOU 2 BILLION PERCENT WITH YOUR FOLLOWING STATEMENT AND I HAVE EVEN SAID IT TO PLENTY OF ANGRY RESPONSES FROM THOSE WHO JOOMLA:

    What we may say to be lacking on a continental level are ambitious entrepreneurs coupled with skilled application and web developers who can tap into this largely untouched market.

    I find that to be more relevant in Zimbabwe’s case.

    Some of these attacks come from folks who are intimidated by higher levels of ambition than just to use free stuff.

    If Mxit or Whatsapp was opensource, I bet it would already have been joomlared too.

    And that is only when these so-called “developers” will come to tell us they created a Mxit. And even tell you “why re-invent the wheel”.

    I say why not create the first Mxit or better?

    Anyway, in this life, some want to be trailblazers while some are just comfortable in their comfort zones. There are also people with ambitions that do not go beyond a plate of sadza.

    Anyway, I would be happy if people would take their projects to Techzim and Techzim posts about these projects, and we know about them, if the projects exist at all, and are not just another joomla job. That way, we would all know that there are actually Zimabweans doing this and that, and who can do this and that. it would even boost the image of the Zimbabwean software developers and generally create a market for Zimbabwean software. otherwise if you only joomla, or have nothing to show, the whole world will not be impressed and will always prefer South African programmers, end even Kenyan ones.

  • http://twitter.com/KuraiMGT KuraiMGT

    Agreeable article. Light language too esp. ”
    As an aside you should really consider getting one of those; Loud music, TV, flash light, Opera Mini, eBuddy and a metallic finish all in a gadget that costs next to nothing. As long as you don’t answer it barefoot whilst it charges”

    I think as Zimboz, we skip some phases and we are picky due to high numbers in Diaspora who pass on gud stuff to mates back home. As  soon as one find a good site or app, it is quickly shared with siblings and other mates…….(they will bling for knowing it, while passing it on).

  • Johnmokwetsi

    My take on the Zimbabwean market is that it has really good speakers…the practical component of the virtual world is lost in these high sounding articles synonymous with Zimbabweans vanity with the queens language. I am studying digital media in the UK and what I have noticed is that for us to have meaningful skills beyond taking a Joomla or Drupal template and manipulate it…it has to start with our colleges. Is a web designing course really what it is. I am not technical but what I have noticed is that the projects an undergrad of computer science in the UK undertakes would make our own projects from various colleges look downright grade 7 stuff. We just need to adjust what we are being taught and maybe a good internet connection would allow self learning….as it is we are a long way out of the zone 

  • http://twitter.com/GourLikeSour Gour Lentell

    Great article Sam. passionate and articulate. We hope biNu fills in some of the middle ground between SMS/USSD and a great internet experience.

  • innovatorZim

    @3c3506ec0d6080fead2cf420c22f48a8:disqus  I second you observation and points you mention. My take on Zim apps/tech industry is we are still narrow minded to think within our boarders and also lack capacity. One will never make enough money from mobile application in a market like Zimbabwe franckly speaking. Below are some points I would like to note:

    1. Scalability – our population is 11mil, active mobile internet user in Zim maybe a modest 2-3 million. Adoption rate for any app will obviously be at maybe 10% of that number of potential users for an app might be at most 300000. With the pricing models of mobile content one will never make good cash (most content available in cents (Mxit an example) and ad revenue might not be good coz the community is not big). The other challenge being apps are usually popular for a limited amount of time.

    2. We need to create an environment of tech entrepreneurs in Zimbabwe. There is need to invest in mathematicas, open source software products, cloud services and applications. This needs to be done during primary and high school. College/Varsity in my view is sometimes late becoz some of the instructors in the universities are far from grooming innovative talent but people with distinctions and high marks who join queues in the job market just after their studies (we need people to be taught to create companies). Most zimbabweans in the diaspora pride themselves from being of great intellectual capacity. I am a Zimbo but I believe we are not good at Critical thinking, creativity and problem solving. That is why I sometimes think our intellect is “bookish” and not really pratical “we are managers and workers everywhere we go becoz we dont create stuff”.  The barriers of entry in the tech game have gone down and there is never a great to become a tech entrepreneur other than now. There is need to invest in social groups which are tech oriented. We basically need geeks in zimbabwe to get things going. Passion for technology and fear of not failing has to dorminate.

    3. We need to think beyond our boarders. We need to make app that can tap into markets like China, India, USA. That is where the numbers are and the cash. Facebook with 850 million users is a big player simply becoz of its community. If we think we will make an app for Ambuya in the rural areas to check the weather then it will be important to check the revenue model becoz at the end of the day one needs to make money.

    4. Why people use USSD/SMS is becoz the monetisation is simple and benefits the MNO which offers the access. MNOs like Econet will never advance technologies which do not see their revenues going up. Mobile sites are data oriented and create a scenario where MNOs become “dumb pipes” on the long run. They will stick to USSD and SMS till data becomes pervasive.

    5. We need investors who understand the culture of tech innovation. People who can burn their cash and continue investing. People who understand that failure is a good thing and keep investing till they get it right. People who have long term strategies and belief in the youth. Never even go into the tech game with the vision fo making money becoz u might not and usually you will not. Mark Zukerberg does not look at cash but looks at the community he creates. Most people who started big tech firms are school drop outs and people who had passion. That passion is required to get things going. We also need a supporting government and business industry which can take risks and support risk takers.
     
    The author of the article summarised it well “…What we may say to be lacking on a continental level are ambitious
    entrepreneurs coupled with skilled application and web developers who
    can tap into this largely untouched market.”

    Sorry my comment is long but i just felt we need to motivate each other to do the unthinkable.

  • http://twitter.com/ransomempini Ransome Mpini

    risking sounding 14…whats USSD?

  • http://www.techzim.co.zw L.S.M. Kabweza

    Not at all @twitter-14799289:disqus . it’s basically more robust SMS system that allows you to be connected to the mobile operator in realtime sending commands and receiving responses. Both 
    EcoCash  and Skwama (well, ZimSwitch mobile) use USSD for the back and forth instant texts you do with the system until you complete your task.
    read more here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unstructured_Supplementary_Service_Data

  • http://cellulartracer.com/ Dwayne

    Man these phones have been gone from my country a long time ago. Although it may be old but it lasts quite a long time as well.

  • http://twitter.com/clikcspeed Norman Nhliziyo

    Well said @innovatorZim:disqus and @3c3506ec0d6080fead2cf420c22f48a8:disqus Zimbos education is tailored for the developed nations – that’s why we fit-in so easily as workers across the world and also one of the reasons for the lack of innovation for developing Zimbabwean/African solutions. On this note, I am someone who strongly believes that we need reform in the education sector.

    Regarding the scalability issue, putting it bluntly, there are 2 ways to make money:
    1 – take a little from a lot
    2 – take a lot from a few

    Because of the relatively small active Internet population it is a gigantic challenge (not imposible – ie http://www.classifieds.co.zw)  to make something sustainable – cash wise for a Zimbabwean market. That said, globally there is a growing trend towards outsourcing (Call Centres/Software Development…) – something worth investigating.  

  • http://twitter.com/ransomempini Ransome Mpini

    ah thanks for that…have always used it (as an enduser) but never knew it had a name. 

  • Johnny Come Lately

     kinda long comment Prosper…but I have to agree with you about people whose only claim to fame (or infamy) is to have joomlaed something..check this out site http://solusi.ac.zw when people pretend to be web site designers..OUCH

  • Diaspora Coder

     I studied in Zimbabwe when undertaking an IT project meant research…Alas all that seems to have changed. Imagine a full Bachelors student “creating” a student enrolment program..my foot..yeah it start with the colleges..

    PS Joomla sucks if you cant code…

  • Digital Warrior

    Good article that captures big pictures for mobile in Zimbabwe. Zim has and probably shall continue to leapfrog certain milestones typical of other markets. Internet access wil be via mobile for the foreseeable future as we have 80% formal unemployment which means few people have access from an office laptop, tablet or desktop. Mobile Internet will give more options and destroy more verticals quicker but this will also depend on the traction on tech entrepreneurship which was partly addressed in the article.

  • Prosper Chikomo

    @e46023d607576c63784754c752738521:disqus , don’t do that to me on a Monday morning. You just drew tears from my eyes… of laughter!

    The background image just aint right. nit would do for a theatre like Amakhosi or something. But what i loved the most were the links at the bottom, and big ones too:

    “Joomla! Home Joomla! Forums  OSM Home  Administrator”

    You just finished me!

  • black mwana

    mazimbo tinonyanya kuda kupersonaliser knowledge, everybody goes through a learning curve and i dont see why you are hating on open source it is a tool that can do wonders in capable hands but also allows incapable people to learn and try to express their ideas. big companies have websites running on joomla and other opensource tools, instead of hating and pulling those who are trying down lets lift each other and offer constructive criticism as opposed to destructive deploration, thank you