Necessity is the mother of invention: Why utility beats ‘cool’ in Africa

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention and indeed that could perfectly describe Africa where it comes to innovation, particularly on mobile.

Utility vs Coolness
In a great talk at TEDxVienna Alexander Oswald, Head of Marketing at Nokia, tells the story of how he and his family visited Kenya and were immensely shocked at just how much people in Kenya were able to accomplish via mobile phones.

From sending and receiving money, to banking and paying for utilities & shopping from their phone, to the use of mobile in tracking the price of agricultural produce, and even automatic insurance payments to your phone, and getting notifications from your child’s school about their performance in an examination or them not attending school (phew)!

Furthermore, all these were not being done from smartphones and really cool apps that just seemed to work magic, but in his words (paraphrased), “This works even on the ‘dumbest’ of phones”.

In his talk, Oswald seems genuinely awestruck at these amazing innovations. This is made even more meaningful when he reveals that despite living in one of the world’s to 10 economies, he is unable get many of the same kind of services via mobile.

According to Oswald, the reason for this is that the top 10 economies simply have “too many resources,” reasoning that, “The scarcity of the resources there brings out the best of people” and he is right.

Why is MPesa such a success story? Simply put — it was a necessity. Pre-MPesa, people still had to do all the things that MPesa has enabled them to do.

Let’s put this in context.

In Kenya, most of the working class are in urban areas, while their parents likely live in rural areas. In the Kenyan culture, it is ordinary and even expected of one to take care of one’s parents and even one’s siblings once they are able to. This mostly means sending money back home to your parents for their upkeep, your siblings school fees and so forth.

Pre-MPesa people still had fairly ingenious ways of accomplishing this — from sending a relative home with the cash, to using bus services to send the cash, to mailing the cash sandwiched between carbon paper so someone handling the post does not see the money through the envelope and decide to pocket it.

MPesa simply solved a very real need that almost every adult Kenyan was facing. Furthermore, it did it simply. All you needed was a phone of whatever kind — even the infamous “mulika mwizi” (feature phone). It did it efficiently — MPesa agents are everywhere! And on top of that, it did it at a reasonable cost to the consumer.

Kenyans bought into it hook, line, and sinker.

It all boils down to critical mass!
While the cost of phones is coming down and lower cost phones are getting more features than your average mulika mwizi, the solutions that are really taking off are not so much the “cool” apps but those that are solving real needs, at low-cost and are accessible across all kinds of phones. That means utilising either SMS or USSD.

In a discussion with a local expert on the issue, it came out that most Kenyans, particularly in rural areas are not even aware of what an app really is.

Does this mean that there’s absolutely no market for smartphone apps locally? Nope. It doesn’t, it just means that if you want to make something that will gain massive adoption, fast, then your best bets are not with smartphone apps.

Does it mean that there’s no market for simply “cool” apps? Again not at all, as the expert I was talking with noted, entertainment for example, is also a need. Perhaps “cool” smartphone apps may not be accessible to the majority, but one could definitely make a business by targeting the relevant demography.

On the other hand, for local app developers, there are also other markets that can be targeted that are not necessarily local. Who says you can’t develop something that catches on in the west? And there are also many opportunities to develop enterprise apps for corporate clients.

Erik Hersman recently wrote:

Throughout the world, the basic foundation of any technology success is based on finding a problem, a need, and solving it. This is what we’re doing in Africa. We have different use cases and cultures, which means that there will be many solutions. Some will only be valuable for local needs and won’t scale beyond the country or region. Others will go global. Both solutions are “right”. It’s not a failure to have a product that profitably serves 100 000 people instead of 100-million.

All about the numbers
All the same, whether building for the “dumb” phone or a smartphone, the success or failure of consumer facing mobile solutions always boils down to “how many people will download and use your app?”.

Oswald gives a brilliant illustration of this during his talk by giving some numbers about the likelihood of people downloading and using smartphone apps regularly. As he notes, even with a substantial marketing budget, chances are you could end up only getting a minimal percentage of users to (a) know about your app (b) download it (c) use it once, and then use it again and again.

Path of least resistance
In conclusion, it would appear that the path of least resistance for local app developers looking to make a quick killing is still with creating “low tech” solutions that are accessible to the majority and that solve a very real need in the consumer’s every day life.



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