SXSWi: Mobile Web in Africa

SXSW Mobile in Africa

By Trisha Creekmore

Austin, Tex. — When I perused the packed schedule at South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi), the annual tech, content and innovation festival looking for panels, speakers and conversations that would be relevant to VOA editors and producers, I found “Beyond the Hype: Mobile App Opportunities in Africa.”

According to the speakers — Justin Arenstein, partner at Rest of the World Media, Nic Haralambous co-founder of the mobile startup, Motribe and Brian Herbert, director of Ushahidi – if you want to reach Africans with non-traditional media, the clear format winner is the mobile Web, not traditional computer Web browsers.

They pointed out that mobile is mature in Africa, where sales of mobile phones grew 22 percent year-on-year in 2009 and another 280 million users are projected to be added to the current one billion by 2015. According to the panel, 10 percent of Kenya’s GDP is channeled through one mobile money channel. As many as ten million subscribers pay bills and fees and transfer money with mobile phones.

But there is a catch: Very few Africans have access to smartphones like the iPhone (less than 1 percent of the market) and android. While many of the devices in circulation have web browsers, the screens are tiny in comparison to the standard in most Western countries. The speakers emphasized the need to build for the lowest common technological denominator and that the mobile Web can do what apps can do, it just doesn’t look as good.

Some of the most impressive successes demonstrated in the panel were focused on crowdsourcing information. Arenstein spoke about a project he helped develop in which local farmers used an SMS and text message system to report on crop issues to a central network. Haralambous talked about his startup, Motribe, a social network built entirely for the mobile web. He made the point that very few Africans have even heard of Facebook.

Brian Herbert demonstrated Ushahidi, a service for reporting location during times of crisis. From its use during the earthquake in Haiti to elections in Kenya, the service has been used encourage citizen engagement and help humanitarian workers quickly report location using SMS technology. It’s proven to be a valuable tool to route messages to people and populations during conventional Web blackouts.

My takeaway? VOA editors and producers interested in reaching Africans should continue to look to the mobile Web and SMS, both for content delivery and crowdsourced reporting. And watch the startup space. Africans are innovating ways to use the mobile Web at a blistering pace.

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