1 January 2017

Africa: A GPS Watch and Smartphone With a Rapid Response Button - South African Start-Up Group Connect and Kenya's Usalama Get You Help

Street crime affects nearly all of Africa's most dynamic cities but there is little effective focus on crime-fighting. Two African start-ups - one South African and the other Kenyan - have come up with products that respond to the need for a rapid response button. Russell Southwood spoke to Group Connect founder Travis Bester about its GPS watch product and looks at how Usalama works in Kenya.

The idea for Group Connect came about through the experience of a family holiday. Bester was on a trip to Disneyland via Paris: his mother and little sister failed to get on the metro at the same time as the rest of the group:"I thought it would be good to have something to try and keep people together. Group Connect is a location sharing application for friends and family to stay connected in the real world."

The app (which is free) already exists on iOS and Android where there have been 1,000 downloads from 18 different countries without any marketing:"We've not been pushing it hard yet." The reason is that the company will shortly launch the app as a piece of integrated software in a GPS watch: "Lots of young kids and aging parents don't always have a smartphone."

The SIM card is unfettered to a device and there will be two modules: one for kids at R1499 and one for seniors at R1599. Both price tags are just over US$100 so not a cheap purchase. Obviously if you've lost a family member (and who hasn't) you can track where they are on a map.

But the function that gives that price some justification is a rapid response button: Group Connect has a strategic partner - Rapid Response - who will send someone to help and inform the emergency services. The strategic partner can also offer this service in Kenya, Mozambique and Nigeria.

The service is currently going through its final tests and will launch in early February. The data side of the watch works on a pre-paid SIM and you can easily check the level of your data on the watch: "It doesn't actually using very much data as it's only sending longtitude and latitude co-ordinates." You can also do voice notes and can act as a two way mobile phone with messaging:"Our focus is on safety and security."

Group Connect is selling the watches direct. So what's the potential market?:"We're looking at Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria and Mozambique. We're targeting somewhere between 15,000-40,000 sales. GPS watches are becoming more common in South Africa but there are few on the market at the moment. Most of the apps on them are not great and a lot look like they have been badly translated from Chinese."

The initial business model is to make the margin on selling the watches but later (once it has a user base) Group Connect will transition into having a premium model with additional functionalities like shared calendars and notes and location history. Group Connect has an angel investor on board but the next stage is to find "a VC willing to get on board."

Kenyan university student Edwin Inganji was robbed of his laptop in an armed robbery and since his phone was also stolen he could not call for help. So he came up with the idea (with his classmates) of having a rapid response button or shaking the phone three times with the volume button held down. The app alerts the police, medical or fire authorities - as well as every other Usalama user within 200m - broadening the scope of help available to the person in need. The app is called Usalama (Swahli for security).

The Government run 999 emergency number was disconnected in 1998 with the police saying they had not got the resources to deal with callers and since its re-launch in 2013 (the year he was mugged) has not always worked well. Nairobi's crime rate is twice the national average, and armed street crime, carjackings, home invasions and kidnapping occur at any time, anywhere.

The app requires the user to input three personal contacts - such as a spouse, parent or work colleague - who are notified alongside the services of any emergency situation, and are given updates every five minutes until the situation is resolved. In this way, the user's contacts can also ensure services are accountable, says Inganji.

They also plan to make a "timer", whereby a user can trigger a distress signal if they have not returned home by a set hour; as well as a "walk with me" feature, which allows users to escort one another home virtually and ensure that each party has returned safely (it is cancellable at any time by either user).

The African cities with crime problems do not seem to have the will or the means to tackle crime. Group Connect's approach is pragmatic: it offers private security (at a cost) to the user. The harder sell is Usalama's which hopes to motivate Kenya's notoriously ineffective police to respond to crimes committed. But however successful either approach is, there is undoubtedly a market for this kind of security start-up.

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