Africa Wired

From Africa Renewal: 
page 29

Mobile phones are getting smarter in rural Africa
Every phone can become a “mobile computing device”

Now Africans can easily make their old mobile phones “smarter,”Now Africans can easily make their old mobile phones “smarter,” even without the capacity for internet connection.
Photograph: Panos / Abbie Trayler-Smith

Imagine you are in Yokadouma, a rural community in eastern Cameroon with little electricity and inaccessible roads. You have an old, inexpensive mobile phone with which you can only make and receive calls. The good news is that it is now possible for that phone to be smarter — to send and receive e-mails, check a Facebook account and chat online, even without internet access.

ForgetMeNot Africa, owned by Lon-Zim and ForgetMeNot Software, developed the Message Optimizer (MO) service in March 2009 to enable telecommunications operators to provide messaging services to customers at no extra cost, without any new applications or phone upgrades. Popular chat services such as MSN Messenger, Yahoo!, Windows Live and Gtalk are all incorporated into the MO.

“Message Optimizer turns every mobile phone into a mobile computing and mobile authentication device,” states ForgetMeNot Africa. The MO allows “more and more of our subscribers to get access to the internet without having to purchase expensive smartphones,” according to Douglas Mboweni, the chief executive officer of Econet Wireless Zimbabwe, a mobile network.

How does the MO deliver messages without the internet or a personal computer? First, a mobile phone subscriber sends an SMS to a given short code. The message is received in the mobile company’s message centre, which then forwards to ForgetMeNot Africa’s internet servers. The servers process, route and deliver the message to the subscriber, who can then respond.

Many factors account for why ForgetMeNot Africa’s MO is spreading speedily, especially in rural areas. Africa has about 1 billion people. Some 72 per cent of them live in the countryside, while internet penetration overall is just 11 per cent, largely in urban areas.

Yet mobile phone use is increasing at a fast pace. In Nigeria, for instance, there are about 90 million mobile phone users, while only 12 million people are connected to the internet. By providing low-cost access to people in rural areas, ForgetMeNot Africa aims to capture the huge market of mobile phone users.

The company currently has around 48 million users, having made inroads into east, west, southern and central Africa. In late 2011, it started targeting 23 million Portuguese-speaking Africans, beginning with 100,000 Cape Verdeans, following collaboration with T-Mais, a mobile company in Cape Verde.

Jeremy George, the chief operating officer of ForgetMeNot Africa, says that the company “can now serve the vast majority of people across the continent, no matter whether they speak English, French or Portuguese.”

On their success so far, Mr. George adds that the company has been able to offer “a new revenue stream from their [mobile companies’] existing subscriber base, while offering customers a unique service.” With every phone becoming smart, Africa’s rural dwellers can proudly now hold aloft their inexpensive phones.

Orange to offer customers free online access to Wikipedia

In what is being promoted as the first partnership of its kind, millions of mobile phone owners in Africa and the Middle East will soon have free access to Wikipedia, an online encyclopaedia. Wikipedia is available for free on the internet, but to access it, mobile phone users have to be enrolled in a data plan that can be costly for most people, especially in low-income African countries.

A leading French mobile company, Orange, has struck an agreement with the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organization that operates Wikipedia, to provide mobile subscribers access to the digital encyclopaedia without incurring additional costs on their internet data plans or subscription fees. The service is being launched throughout 2012 and will be available in both urban and remote parts of Africa and the Middle East. Orange has operations in 15 African countries and five in the Middle East.

According to a joint statement by Orange and the Wikimedia Foundation, any customer with an Orange SIM card and mobile internet-enabled phone will be able to access the Wikipedia site either through their browser or an Orange widget or software application. This will give users “access to the Wikipedia encyclopaedia services for as many times as they like at no extra charge as long as they stay within Wikipedia’s pages.”

According to information on its website, Wikipedia “is a free, collaborative, multilingual internet encyclopaedia.” The website has more than 21 million articles (over 3.8 million in English alone) that have been written by volunteers around the world. Most of Wikipedia’s articles can be edited by anyone with access to the website.

“Wikipedia is an important service, a public good — and so we want people to be able to access it for free, regardless of what device they’re using,” said Sue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation. “This partnership with Orange will enable millions of people to read Wikipedia, who previously couldn’t.”

The group executive vice-president for Africa, the Middle East and Asia at Orange, Marc Rennard, said, “In countries where access to information is not always readily available, we are making it simple and easy for our customers to use the world’s most comprehensive online encyclopaedia.”

While Orange has 70 million customers across Africa and the Middle East, the free service will be available only to users — currently about 10 million — who have mobile phones with 2G or 3G capability to access the internet. The French mobile operator expects to expand the service to 50 per cent of its customers by 2015. But since the deal with Wikipedia is not exclusive to Orange, similar arrangements with other phone operators in Africa, currently the world’s fastest growing market for mobile phones, are likely to be struck in the future.