Vodacom’s big bet on the app economy

Apps are the future. We all know that. Some even believe a new “app economy” may replace the web itself.

But what about the app stores, the places we go to buy the apps? The Android Market and Apple’s App Store have hundreds of thousands of apps. Even smaller stores like Microsoft’s Windows Phone Marketplace and BlackBerry’s App World have tens of thousands of apps. Does the sheer scale of OS-specific app stores mean there’s no space for a different of store, one that serves a specific country or market?

South African mobile giant Vodacom thinks not. It launched its app store in September 2011, with the intent of providing apps that are relevant to the people of South Africa.

In the six months the store has been live, it has put together a catalogue of 140 000 plus apps and seen over one-million downloads. The store offers apps across a number of platforms including Android, iOS, RIM and Java.

According to Managing Executive of Digital Media at Vodacom Prins Mhlanga, the store was launched with the vision of “kick-starting an entirely new industry in South Africa” and “creating apps relevant to the unique environment in South Africa as well as creating jobs and income opportunities at the same time”.

Speaking to Memeburn, Mhlanga says a large part of this vision involved “creating a need for developers”.

When the mobile network was looking for people to build apps for the store, says Mhlanga, it found “less than 200 active app developers” in the country.

With this in mind it has been looking to build up the South African developer community, through initiatives such as the Vodacom Developer Programme and its App Stars competition.

It also embarked on a country-wide road show during which it found another thousand or so developers.

According to Mhlanga, from the beginning, the quality of apps produced by “developers who’ve been around for a while has been great”.

He admits, however, that there were “a few teething issues” with first time developers, who “had to be helped”.

Extending that helping hand appears to have paid dividends. One of the first-time developers, Glenn Stein, won third prize in the App Stars Challenge. Stein developed PhraZApp, a Java App which translates South African languages.

Another way the mobile operator claims to be helping developers is by “linking them with different brands”. These brands range from financial institutions to health services.

Mhlanga claims that Vodacom is also “working with various tertiary institutions” to encourage the next generation of developers.

That’s how the app store has managed to get to where it is, but what about where it wants to be?

2012: The Year of the South African App

Mhlanga says that 2012 will be the year Vodacom will “look for more locally relevant apps”.

If the latest stats from the app store are to be believed, those locally relevant apps will increasingly have to be tailored to smartphones.

In the past couple of weeks, the majority of downloads have shifted from the Java apps built for feature phones to those built for BlackBerry devices.

In fact BlackBerry apps account for around 52% of downloads on the app store, with Java apps in second place at 37%. Android and Symbian take up third and fourth place respectively.

Mhlanga cautions, however, that the rise of BlackBerry apps on the store may be down to diminishing “lack of awareness about phone capability” more than a rapid rise in the South African smartphone market. That shift, he says will happen “gradually”.

Ultimately, says Mhlanga, Vodacom wants to “create a whole lot of entrepreneurs who act as partners to the app store” and to “continue to educate subscribers”.

The African Dream

Mhlanga says that South Africa is just the beginning when it comes to Vodacom app stores. The company already has presences in other markets on the continent and will look to make use of them.

“We are currently in talks with Vodacom DRC,” says Mhlanga, adding that Tanzania is another eventual target.



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