17 February 2009

Nigeria: ICT Company Offers Solution to Rival Internet Heavyweights

MapNTL.com was born in New York City about four years ago when Ireti Ajala and a friend wanted to visit a certain Brazilian restaurant in Queens. Not knowing the exact location, Ajala's friend used MapQuest to search for the street and to generate driving directions to the restaurant.

Ajala thought it would be a good idea to establish a similar portal in Nigeria where Nigerians can search for any street and business or get turn-by-turn driving directions between two points in Nigeria. This led to the development of MapNTL.com of which Ajala is currently the Chief Executive Officer.

MapNTL.com enables users to search for street locations in Lagos online. Although the concept is nothing new, and the website is not nearly as slick as MapQuest, it is still a great achievement for Nigeria which has been somewhat lagging behind in the internet space. And the website certainly works.

When one, for example, types in Kofo Abayomi Street and press 'go', a map showing the location of the street pops up. In addition to the street map, the logos and locations of a number of businesses also appear on the map.

But how does MapNTL.com differ from other sites such as Google Maps and Yahoo! Maps which also offer a similar service? "Yes there are other companies who offer mapping services but what makes us unique is that we know Nigeria like the back of our hand," says Ajala. "Lagos has over 400 000 streets but some other websites show Lagos with only five roads. Those companies are world giants; they have millions of users in North America, Europe and possibly in other African countries like South Africa, but when it comes to Nigeria we are the local champion."

A quick check on some renowned mapping sites confirms Ajala's point - I couldn't find any services that have a detailed street map of Lagos.

The company plans to raise revenue in two ways. The first is "mapvertising" - an advertising platform that allows companies to show users the location of their offices or outlets on the map. Companies pay N4 500 (US$30) for every location that is advertised. Secondly, revenue will be raised through traditional banner advertising.

"Companies like MTN and Zain, who took the risk to come and invest in Nigeria, are smiling all the way to the bank because high risk does yield high rewards. Foreign investors should remember "no pain, no gain".

Work on expanding the service to other Nigerian cities has already started. "Right now, work has reached an advanced stage to integrate Abuja. This means that very soon MapNTL.com users should be able to search for any street, office or business location in Abuja," says Ajala.

According to Ajala, MapNTL.com's services appeal to people between 20-40 years. The company estimates that most users have internet access at work or home and fall within a high income bracket. "We find it difficult to accept that someone will go to an internet café with a single purpose of accessing our services."

Geographic information systems (GIS) are currently used widely in the Western World, but Nigeria still has a way to go in adopting the technology. "At the moment GIS in Nigeria is yet to be fully developed. This is because we still do not have access to cheap source data and software. Very few companies in Nigeria can afford to invest in the latest GIS software because of prohibitive cost. Most companies are still using outdated and pirated software," says Ajala.

MapNTL.com is a subsidiary of Spatial Technologies Ltd, a Nigerian mapping and GIS company located both in Lagos and UK. It recently launched a satellite navigation unit loaded with a 120 city maps down to street level. It also developed a geocoding solution for UBA bank where the locations of one million clients are shown on a map. This helped the bank to make several strategic decisions in its 2008/2009 expansion project.

Ajala thinks there is much more room for investment in Nigeria's ICT sector. "We have been paying too much attention to telecoms at the expense of other ICT sectors. Nigeria had been labelled a high risk area by the western media. Companies like MTN and Zain, who took the risk to come and invest in Nigeria, are however smiling all the way to the bank because high risk does yield high rewards. Foreign investors should remember "no pain, no gain".

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