A few weeks ago, my roommate, Rich, invited me to the launch of a new tech business, Saya Mobile. The founders are a team of young Ghanaians who’ve received support from a technology incubator associated with the non-profit Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology, where Rich is a professor.
Saya is a mobile phone application that lets you send messages for free to other users of the service. Right now, most people pay per-text with pre-paid credit, and texts can really add up fast. I have a serious texting addiction, unfortunately, and recently a Ghanaian friend of mine commented that I must have a lot of money to waste with all that texting. (Mom and Dad, I promise I do not text while riding my awesome new motorbike.)
So Saya is filling the gap, allowing their users to send messages to one another for free, and earning revenue by sending them advertising messages. Users pay only internet data rates, which are generally much lower than the rate to send an individual text message. Saya also has some other cool services, like Facebook chat and something called “Streetchat,” which lets you connect with other users nearby.
The Saya team – and many of the other budding tech entrepreneurs I’ve talked with at Meltwater – cite a staggering statistic for their choice to develop a mobile phone application: 80%. That is, it’s projected that by the end of 2012, 80% of Africans will own cell phones.
This gets development people and business people alike very excited. They talk about the phenomenon of leapfrog technology: people skipping both landlines and personal computers in favor of cheap, portable cell phones that give them access to both communications networks and the internet. Development folks see this technology as a critical tool in battles against poverty, infant/maternal mortality, agriculture, climate change, the common cold, etc. etc. For example, despite relatively high development indicators in other sectors, Ghana has an abysmally high maternal mortality rate. So Grameen Bank has an initiative, in cooperation with the Ghana Health Service, that calls or sends text messages to expecting mothers about important pre- and post-natal care.
Development research has found many more examples of tangible economic benefits to cell phone access:
In Mali, residents of Timbuktu can call relatives living in the capital city of Bamako—or relatives in France. In Ghana, farmersin Tamale are able to send a text message to learn corn and tomato prices in Accra,over 400 kilometers away. In Niger, day laborers are able to call acquaintances in Benin to find out about job opportunities without making the US$40 trip. In Malawi, those affected by HIV and AIDS can receive text messages daily, reminding them to take their medicines on schedule.
Cellular technology is also filling another gap: the cash economy. (“Cash and carry” is a phrase that finds its way into many a wry joke here; think ambulance service and you get the idea.) Many Africans don’t have bank accounts or credit cards. The transactions they need to make are relatively small. Cell phones allow them to do this electronically through various mobile banking applications. In Ghana, MTN’s Mobile Money is the brand most people are familiar with.
Businesses like Saya Mobile, of course, are taking advantage of the huge amount of money flowing into the cell market by developing mobile applications. And the cell companies themselves are the biggest beneficiaries. In Ghana, cellular companies are probably the most visible advertisers. When my friends Sean and McKinze visited me a couple of weeks ago, Sean commented that he saw green everywhere; green is the color of the newest campaign by Glo, which just launched in Ghana.
When I first arrived everything was yellow: MTN’s color.
But despite all the money the cell companies are raking in and spending on advertising, many Ghanaians I’ve talked to are very unhappy with their cell phone service. Many people have several sim cards, each from different companies, to use when there are service outages, as well as to take advantage of promotions within the same network. When I first met President Ben of my Rotary club in Tema, for example, he had two cell phones rubber-banded back-to-back. And I’ve had to temper my texting addiction because my service provider, Airtel, somehow manages to lose my texts in the ether for hours or days at a time. Sometimes I can’t call my friends who have MTN for hours.
And of course, it’s worth noting that that 80% is a very uneven 80%. Though a 2009 article in the BBC cited a growth rate of 550% in cell phone ownership, cell phone ownership rates vary widely by country and demographics. South Africa and Nigeria, at 84% and 71%, respectively had the highest rates of cell ownership last year, while Ghana came in fourth at 59%, according to a Gallup survey of seventeen African countries. The Central African Republic came in last at 17%. (Every time I cite a statistic, I realize how FAST these numbers as changing.) And of course there are huge differences in ownership rates between urban and rural populations, as well as by gender, age and education level.
Africans are clever folks though; they have ways of getting access to cellular technology even if they can’t afford a phone themselves. I’ve heard about “village phones,” when one or a few people in a community have a cell phone and charge a small fee for other people to use them. (Yet another example of the incredible importance of social networks in Africa, a topic I really must get around to writing about more broadly.)
And just like in the US, cell phones also serve another universal social purpose: marking status. The wealthier Ghanaians wield their Blackberries and iPhones like…like……well, a good metaphor is escaping me at the moment, but you get the idea. I, on the other hand, can’t hold onto a cell phone to save my life – I’m on my third – so I only get the cheapest, most indestructible kind.
I’ve been doing some interviews with the brilliant young entrepreneurs at Meltwater, and hopefully soon I’ll have more to share with you about technology entrepreneurship in Ghana – and a vision of Accra as home to the next Silicon Valley.