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


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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