Mobile Apps in Africa
By Carol Posthumus, Mon Aug 20 00:00:00 GMT 2001

With satellites and plasma screens, many Africans are developing new apps for wireless networks.

As GSM networks grow in Africa, hitchhikers are jumping at the chance to ride to new places with GSM.

Entrepreneurs, tired of waiting for landlines, are coming up with novel GSM applications. Networks of plasma screens receiving DVD files via satellite - and using GSM as the return path - are what one South African group has in its backpack, as it hops aboard to deliver health and community information to rural communities.

Johannesburg-based digital media and telecommunications group Three Blind Mice (tbm) say that, for them, twining their application to GSM, with SMS directing people to their screens' locales, means that AIDS/HIV and other health or community information can be cheaply delivered to people in remote and infrastructure-lacking areas.

"We can go wherever there are telephone lines. And, for us, GSM is an obvious way to extend our network in Africa as land line coverage is not as wide as we'd like in some parts," says tbm's chief executive officer Pierre van der Hoven.

The group seems to pride itself on being adventurous in the way it puts technologies and media forms together to break through barriers. This company culture, like many of the new wave of African technology entrepreneurs, is a mixture of a modern high-tech business 'geeky' outfit blended with African style.

Their headquarters, in a chic new building, in downtown Rosebank, are fit for the pages of an architectural magazine. It is complete with all the modern necessities: water features, a hairdresser, a travel agent and a coffee bar. While their home base is urban, African organizations like tbm increasingly go to the wildest parts of Africa for "team building."

In general, from paintball contests on farms (for the very competitive groups) to corporate drumming events (to help the suited ones get rhythm) team building is a fever in South Africa.

Mobile banking and plasma screens: In the wild bush

These GSM and plasma screen adventurers, though, apparently enjoy going to wild places that are similar to the television series Survivor's locations - like the Waterberg or the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, for weekend camps.

This is a crowd that has been surfing the Internet and banking on their Palms for years; but who regularly go on excursions to places where facilities are "one toilet and a few tents".

Often, they take a satellite dish and a plasma screen along to the bush, to catch the weekend's big sporting event as part of the experience. They like to unite contradictory elements in business too - like DVD, satellites, plasma screens and GSM.

Van der Hoven reckons that they were a "bit amazed" when they discovered that the way they produce and distribute DVD files to networked plasma screens is considered unusual.

"Our compatriots from other parts of the world tell us it's something different, the way we do things. We got around the challenge that mammoth bandwidth is required to send high-definition material, as in DVD, to geographically diverse screens, by sending material as narrow casting rather than as broadcasting."

He feels that doing things differently and putting together diverse technologies means that solutions are found to the challenges of the African environment. "We see GSM as giving us a great route into communities for public interest initiatives, such as health and educational campaigns - and for our business of creating, producing and disseminating low cost DVD quality advertising."

Helping build "crazy" new communities

Notably, Van der Hoven (38) is a local media and communications technology player, consultant and speaker whose moves are often watched with interest in South Africa. He has a track record of helping to build new co-operative style communications communities. Words like "crazy idea" and "ludicrous" have often bandied around start-ups he has been involved in.

Like the commercial radio station, YFM, targeting young black audiences, he helped to pioneer a few years ago - and decided to staff up with young black people of an average age of 22. This was considered unusual in South Africa in 1998. Considered very cool (utmost cool comes from being the kind of radio parental ears just do not want to hear), the operation today has over 1,5m listeners and is the largest regional radio station in the country. "Radio was a cultural experience for me," says van der Hoven.

He was also closely involved as a participant in the hotly contested race and winning of the country's first free-to-air national television license for eTV, and worked in television "an experience of the visual medium" for some years. During van der Hoven's time in television, and in between participating in the Camel Trophy, a grueling adventure event, he made some TV documentaries.

These included Journey to the End of the Line, whereby a film crew, bearing an election poster of Nelson Mandela, hitched a ride on the back of a railway carriage as far north as possible into Africa. African Shark Safari (co-produced with Discovery channel) and Issues of Faith (looking at religions in Sudan and Nigeria) were others.

Experiencing up-close the issues of infrastructure and other challenges, as well as the mammoth beauty and opportunities of Africa may well have led to his interest in digital technologies. Seeing a railway line end in depressing disuse in Zaire and being arrested by thuggish militia for being part of a film crew are, indeed, informative experiences, he recalls well.

At the same time experiencing the African spirit of community is inspiring. "The thirst for communication and information in Africa is awesome. I recall in Zaire that the local university students invited us to come and speak to them. They just wanted to engage in English - as they mostly speak French."

A public medium for the mobile-era movement

Van der Hoven has a passion, he says, for technologies that minimize the limitations of time, distance and speed, and bring down costs. His involvement today as head of tbm, majority owned by a black and workers' union-controlled consortium in South Africa, is "about this technology, and the removal of limits and lowering of barriers."

He is keen on the mobile information revolution. "Our systems of screens in public places are another side of the huge growth of mobility in personal technologies in Africa. It is a public medium for the mobile era. As people move around, we provide high-quality multimedia: in a way helping forge the digital environment for the mobile revolution."

Africa is in need of innovative means such as these to deliver community and business information, he observes.

"The media of networked screens in public spaces, from community centers to clinics and shopping malls, is tremendously well suited to Africa. It means we can communicate with people in new ways, while adding interest to the environment. It takes a long time to deliver videotape to a community center in a rural, isolated area in Africa, for example."

"But as our technology sends and controls files instantaneously from a central point in Johannesburg, the process becomes fast, easy, flexible and low cost. Health messaging, from information on AIDS/HIV, TB and epidemics such as malaria and cholera, is obviously very important to get to people. Innovation is needed."

The group is looking to unroll their screens in police stations in South Africa as a community service too.

"The ways people learn and absorb information are different in the digital age, definitely. Our belief is that plasma screens in the environment get away from the sometimes patronising concentrated information-overload 'teaching style sessions' of classrooms for adults, that people don't always have time, interest or feeling for."

Mobile technology: A well-timed life-changer for Africa

Van der Hoven, with a history as a multi-disciplinarian, believes that synchronicity between media forms is a must. "For our community initiatives using the GSM network, we see SMS as a natural part of this. For instance, we would send out SMS to people in a district directing them to the location in the community of our screens."

He believes - like many digital entrepreneurs here - that " non-place-bound" technology of mobile in Africa can be life saving and changing. "Anyone who seeks to oppress or control cannot bull dust people if they are connected: that's it basically. An SMS, or mobile Internet providing more information, can make a world of difference. Messages saying 'the river is flooding' to 'TB testing at clinic today' or 'malaria warnings' could change or save a life."

This adventuring entrepreneur feels that the wireless and digital revolution is well timed for the continent in many ways. "The ability of new communication networks to open opportunities in trade, learning and mutual understanding, while at the same time not scarring our earth or environment, could be the combination we have been waiting for. Africa, as I see it, looks out from an ideal window of opportunity."

"That is, if we can preserve the wealth of the magnificent natural resources and physical beauty of Africa, while taking advantage of new technologies and energy forms."

Carol Posthumus is a freelance writer, specializing in business and technology developments in Southern Africa. She lives in Midrand, South Africa.