London — A number of different start-ups have tried creating a data-free access service for African customers without success. biNu's Co-founder and CEO Gour Lentell is a veteran and pioneer of low-cost data access. Russell Southwood spoke to this Zimbabwean-born entrepreneur about offering free data through reverse billing.
Once upon time biNu was a successful content platform with optimized data acess for feature phone with significant numbers in several African countries. Cheap smartphones arrived and it morphed to suit them. But now biNu 2.0 is something very different although with the same spirit as the original platform.
"biNu has always focused on the data cost challenge in emerging markets. In the first instance it was targeted as a platform at featurephones and later smartphones, making efficient use of data".
"We had a round of investment in 2016 and revised our focus - not changed it - to concentrate on the issue of unaffordable data in emerging markets. The focus remained the same but the technology and the business model changed. We built the new tech for smartphones to enable data free access to the internet and content on it. We created #datafree and trademarked the hashtag". (The twitter account of the same name has 57,486 followers).
"It's a B2B platform with reverse billing agreements with telcos. Reverse billing is a relatively new product for MNOs. They can zero rate an IP address but charge for data packets for it. Over the last 2-3 years as they have updated the network, the management software for it has also improved. They can not only zero rate an IP address but measure the use of that address and reverse bill for it".
biNu has reverse billing agreements with all four MNOs in South Africa and they have the tech platforms to operate the service. Any enterprise or content provider can use reverse billing for particular content.
When I spoke to Lentell late last year, biNu had a customer going live in South Africa called Assupol Insurance based in Pretoria. It has 1 million customers in the middle market and below paying R30-40 a month for funeral cover. The company has a client portal to allow them to manage their accounts and do things like file claims. Few customers were accessing the client portal and they tended to use the call centres, branch offices and agents. There was frustration that no-one was using the client portal so it can now say to customers you can log in for free.
According to Lentell, it had three main reasons for having data free access to its client portal:
It would save costs if people were using the call centres and branches less.
It would improve the customer experience.
It had the potential to be revenue additive because it could upsell to existing clients.
"Asupol was able to sign one deal with us for access from all four mobile networks. We charge for the data usage and there is a single data plan, not four different ones. The telcos also get to send one bill to us for multiple clients using the service. We are measuring on a per client and per app basis. And of course, these are new revenues for the MNOs".
The platform is aimed at commercial enterprises, public enterprises, NGOs (health, education, etc) who "need to reach people and engage with them".
"We're working with Wyzetalk in Stellenbosch who are a cloud software platform for large, low-income workforces. It lets employees access corporate information like timesheets and schedules. They have a wide range of clients but particularly big retailers. Any one of these clients could choose a data free option for their employees".
"We're working with publishers on news - with things like live football scores - with companies that want to build and engage audiences for their content where advertising is the revenue model. We have built the tech to deliver 10 second video ads for free. There are consumer brand companies and FMCGs who are looking to engage the market and want a branded experience".
It launched in South Africa to establish the business model and get traction for it. Then it will expand to other African markets and after that, other emerging markets outside the continent.
"We're working with a large African MNO that launched their reverse billing platform in July. We sold the biNu platform to it through their Enterprise Division. So they became aware of the tech we had built which adds value and then engaged in a strategic partnership. So now there's a discussion about using our tech as part of their product offering".
The implementation process is complicated and takes several weeks but it only has to implement once on all four networks:"What we do is unique in the African region. The tagline is connecting mobile audiences for free".
So far, so good but there was a wrinkle that had to be ironed out:"At first, take-up was not as strong as we thought it would be. There's an app install problem in South Africas. Because of data costs, people are only install 5-6 apps. People are building fantastic apps but no-one is installing them".
He figured out that what people missed most when they had no data was messaging. So he created a disruption to WhatsApp, a data free messaging platform. It's a messenger platform you can use whether or not you have data called Moya Messaging, which has 150,000 actives in South Africa and will be going live in Nigeria soon.
"It's a messenger app you can use for text messaging whether or nit you have data. It's all one app and it's data free". The app also allows access to all the other data free service clients that biNu has signed up.