Africa Renewal (United Nations)

1 August 2012

Africa Wired

It's elegant, it's hip and it's one of the hottest phones on the African market. Nothing says "I am important" like a man or woman whipping out a BlackBerry smartphone. It's easily recognizable with its wide screen and trademark keypad. According to Masahudu Ankiilu Kunateh, editor at Ghananewslink.com, "What is your BB pin?" has become the ultimate sizing-up request. To be asked the question, he says, you have to be considered cool enough to own one.

Research In Motion (RIM), the Canadian company that owns BlackBerry, has managed to carve itself a niche in Africa. In 2010, with the help of Brightstar, a global services company that works with key players in the wireless industry, it started distributing its gadgets throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Today South Africa boasts over 2.5 million active devices, according to World Wide Worx, a South African technology research firm. Nigeria has 2 million active devices.

A lot of phone companies are trying to tap into the African smartphone market, because of flagging sales elsewhere. Samsung and Nokia are competing for the Kenyan youth market, writes James Ratemo, online sub-editor at the Nation Media Group. Even RIM stocks went down by 70 per cent in late June, losing to Apple and Google in North America and Europe.

But the secret to BlackBerry's success in Africa is its affordability. The BlackBerry Messenger application software, which enables people to share voice and text messages, pictures and video clips, is free. Affordable data plans, like those in South Africa, allow users to pay a flat-rate of $7 per month for Internet access. RIM of Africa has also partnered with top mobile carriers like Vodafone, MTN and Airtel, sharing profits instead of tying the device to one carrier, underscores Mr. Kunateh. And its signature feature - a secure, encrypted data system that makes it difficult for an outsider to monitor communications - could help it win over local businesses.

But nothing is set in stone. The Chinese company Huawei is a strong competitor with its low-end smartphones. Currently, its locally-manufactured Android phone, which goes for the equivalent of US$80, is a big hit in rural Kenya. Google, whose Android apps are the latest craze in sub-Saharan Africa, is also testing out the waters.

Taking the Internet to all homes in Mauritius

Mauritius is set to join a growing list of African countries with a fibre-optic network, which guarantees high-quality bandwidth and makes Internet services more accessible and affordable. The Mauritian government wants every home and office linked to the network, and Bharat Telecom, an Indian investor, is working to make the dream come true for the country of 1.3 million people.

Most Mauritians consider Internet tariffs to be exorbitant. Poor performance by service providers has also angered citizens. In November 2011, Minister of Information Technology and Communication Tassarajen Chedumbrum Pillay announced the licensing of Bharat Telecom to set up a 2,900-kilometre fibre network to cover the entire country. Work is advancing on the first phase of the project - called "Fibre to the Home" - and is expected to cover 70 per cent of the country.

In May 2012 the company announced on its Facebook page that it had experienced delays with "aerial fibre optic installations" in some parts of the country. But in June Bharat Telecom began testing its services to the satisfaction of many potential customers.

Baljinder Sharma, Bharat Telecoms' executive director, says about the broadband service: "The cheaper it is the more uptake there will be and therefore there will be more subscribers, which in turn will sustain lower bandwidth prices."

When completed, subscribers will pay just $10 per month and receive up to 40 television channels, including Fox and HBO from the US. More affluent subscribers will pay $200 for premium content and faster bandwidth. Subscribers currently pay about $50 monthly for basic Internet services.

An excited Mauritian blogger writes: "We will be able to get 40 Internet protocol television channels and Internet access for just Rs280 ($9.10). Compare that with Rs1,500 ($49) for the [current] package and it looks like an 80 per cent saving."

Other offerings, according to Mr. Sharma, include "most Indian news channels and soaps, Hollywood, French programmes and Bollywood.... We want to be able to deliver e-commerce and education through partners." He notes that many people are eager to use Internet protocol TV.

Bharat Telecoms is not adding voice service to the overall package. "We don't want to get into a fight with the local big boys," explains Mr. Sharma, although the company plans to offer a telephone port so that subscribers can make calls within the network if they wish to.

To break even, Bharat Telecoms is setting sight on 50,000 subscribers. Mauritius currently has about 320,000 broadband users (25 per cent of the population), so the potential is great. With literacy over 80 per cent, chances are that faster and cheaper Internet service will attract many more.

Mauritius' economy is currently growing at 3.6 per cent annually, and with per capita income of $7,420, the country is considered to be middle income. The UN Development Programme's human development index ranks it second in Africa. Access to a faster and more affordable Internet can only boost its development efforts.

Google brings fun to Africa through SMS

It used to be that only people with smartphones able to handle photos and videos could get onto social media networks such as Facebook or Twitter and have all the fun. Now anyone in more than 40 countries with the most basic mobile phone can join the party by simply using text messaging or SMS, even when the phone is not connected to the Internet.

Recently the search engine giant, Google, announced that starting this year, its increasingly popular social network, Google+, will now be available in 41 new countries, including 22 in Africa. Until recently, Google+ through SMS was available only in the US and India. The targeted African countries are Algeria, Angola, Benin, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Morocco, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia.

To sweeten the deal, Google+ users in East Africa will have the added advantage of sending SMS commands in KiSwahili, an official language in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and also spoken widely in several other countries in the region.

"We wanted to ensure that Google+ is also available at times when you are not connected to the Internet," Anat Amir, head of marketing at Google Africa, wrote on the company's blog. "This means that you can post updates, receive notifications and reply to them via SMS." Mr. Amir touted Google+ as a platform people can use "to easily manage who you share [information] with, ensuring your boss won't see your party pics and your friends are not bored with you sharing work-related news articles." To use the SMS features, mobile owners will need to go to the Google Mobile page and activate their phones.

According to TechZim, a news blog, Google considers Africa an essential market and is deliberately pushing its services through several developer and user events in a number of countries there.

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