People then have more control over what they’re doing with their few resources.

m:lab East Africa is a Kenya-based hub that aims to promote and inspire mobile innovation. Its team lead, John Kieti, is a technologist, a mobile-for-development researcher, an agripreneur and a blogger. We spoke with him while researching 10 Mobile Trends for 2014 and Beyond, which spotlights the idea that as mobile access ramps up in Africa, the continent will become a wellspring of innovation, thanks in part to innovation centers like m:lab. We spoke with Kieti about the role that mobile tech is playing in Africa: how it shapes consumer behavior and what the opportunities are for brands and developers.

What is the m:Lab?

m:Lab East Africa is a regional hub set up by iHub and others including Nairobi University, eMobilis and the World Wide Web Foundation with support from the World Bank to try and tap into opportunities around the mobile marketplace.

The East Africa region [Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda] has become a mobile-first economy in terms of access to computers, and there’s many people with phones. m:Lab tries to tap into that through entrepreneurship that’s based on innovative processes and trying to solve local problems.

What does “mobile first” mean to you?

Because of the power of the mobile device increasing and the capacity or storage, the phone has become the computer in people’s hands. In fact, some phones will have more power and greater capacity than a computer. Even though the schools do not allow kids to have mobile phones, at least within any particular household, in most cases, they have a phone in the house and that phone is what kids are really asking to play with, to play games or to access the Internet.

Generally, in more than 80 percent [of households in the region] there is a phone. It either belongs to their father or their mother. Or it can be as much as every person, every adult in the household.

What’s driving the proliferation of mobile phones?

The bigger component is cheaper handsets. Access to the device is driving things. GSM coverage is also increasing, though maybe not as fast as the rate at which phones are becoming available. The mobile phone is an essential commodity, to the extent that some people actually consider airtime on their phone as a necessity. They could even skip a meal just to at least have access to airtime. The mobile has become that important.

And when you say airtime, do you mean specifically for communication?

It’s traditionally been voice as a main use case for mobile devices and mobile communication networks. But mobile money has become huge. Besides voice and things like mobile money, the telcos have been competing to get market share around data and Internet access, and that’s starting to be increasingly important beyond the standard voice proposition that the average user is looking at.

In terms of behavior, how do mobile users in Africa differ from users in more developed markets?

[In developed markets,] mobile phone consumption is on a post-paid basis versus a prepaid basis. And in most of East Africa, it’s a prepaid economy, where people buy their airtime in advance before they can consume it. People then have more control over what they’re doing with their few resources—whether they’ll consume all the credit on phone calls, voice calls or data, or other things. They have a little more control, and that’s a completely different economy from what you have in Europe and the U.S. and other more developed economies, where people don’t care how much they’re going to spend because they know it’s going to cost this much at the end of the month.

What do Facebook’s and Google’s plans to expand Internet access to emerging regions mean for Africa?

In Africa, the most influential corporations tend to be telcos, and this is because of monopolistic behavior that helps them and maybe not so much the consumer. If Google and Facebook’s efforts actually materialize, then this is liberation amongst the consumers. If you remove telcos from the equation, then basically you empower the users more, because data to the phone is much cheaper. And if you remove that cost element for users, they’re ready to use services that they were not too reliant on before.

What are people in Africa using mobile data for?

For now, people are just using Internet for Facebook. By far, the biggest consumption of data is social networks. And then location, Google or reading, small-time research. There’s also a bit of reading news, which is mostly accessed through Facebook and social networks. But now we’ve seen many applications that have begun to come up that will take that space there for local and relevant content.

When it comes to social networking, are people using local or global social networks?

There’s an effort to come up with a local social network, but there are some things that are meant to be global, like social networking. Imagine how useful Facebook and others are in terms of, for instance, an extended family of 50 people based across the U.S., the U.K. and Africa. Imagine what that means for communication and for keeping in touch within that family. You can think of other scenarios that then a global social network becomes much more relevant than that national or regional social network. Many things can be localized, but some things have to be global.

How do people in Africa use Facebook?

Facebook is definitely being used for productivity amongst Kenyans, if not Africans. For example, this is an agriculture area, and I personally follow at least five Facebook pages or groups where I’m learning and interacting around farming. So special interest groups are forming around Facebook, which are even ending up with a lot of transactions happening offline based on initial conversations on Facebook.

To answer your question about local websites, local content: When people want to convert to a local regional website, they can’t just get off Facebook. There’s normally two reasons. One, Facebook is so big that someone would rather remain within the infrastructure of Facebook as opposed to being taken off to another portal that’s similar. There’s also an issue of the quality of the other portal that local guys tried to create. It’s sometimes very difficult for them to match the features of Facebook.

How can brands use mobile to insert themselves into the lives of African consumers?

It’s a huge thing, especially for those that are keen on cementing their presence in Africa as a big brand that should be respected and that should continue to grow. There’s the audience of the thought leaders and influencers, like applications developers, who potentially create something that leverages Vodafone’s platform or a mobile money system or something similar to that in health or education, following on the success of m-Pesa. These brands may need to at least interest these innovators around building something on top of their infrastructure.

What are you excited about in the foreseeable future when it comes to mobile?

One of the things I’m really excited about is the prospect of creating digital jobs. The fact that connectivity is ubiquitous means jobless people are educated, and once they have that kind of connectivity, it can be used for many things. For instance, MobiAgent is trying to liberate educated people with mobile phones that have connectivity to the Internet so they can do some productive work. They’re jobless, but microtasks could be delivered by those people. And this could be sourced from anywhere in the world.

It could be as simple as becoming a distributor or a salesperson for certain things that are not available in the grassroots. So this sheer access to Internet and information amongst people that are jobless translates to a lot of productive work on the mobile phone without having to have a computer or laptop.

What should mobile designers bear in mind when designing products for emerging market consumers?

It’s very easy for us to embrace and talk about those developing market stereotypes around illiteracy and what that means. My sense is that if the people on the ground have a certain need, and it’s a real need, then they’ll do anything to address that need regardless of their apparent computer illiteracy

I don’t think illiteracy matters so much that someone won’t make a reach to gain a benefit that’s obvious to them. And a case in point is m-Pesa. When m-Pesa first got introduced, and even now, it was not the best of user experiences. It’s just cumbersome to use, but the utility of sending money or receiving money causes people to learn it.

Innovation and adoption should be more need-driven than context- and situation- and desire-driven. The imperative for the developer is that if you can make the learning curve a little less steep for the less computer-savvy, then of course you achieve your goals, you achieve uptake and adoption of your stuff. But it’s not impossible for uptake and adoption to happen over something that’s difficult to use but very beneficial nevertheless.

If something were in Africa, it probably would work anywhere else in the world, and that’s because in Africa they make things despite resource constraints, among other things including illiteracy. If you manage to develop a product that [considers] all these resource constraints, including illiteracy and user abilities, it’s probably going to be very easy to deploy that in established markets, and that gives you competitive advantages over others who didn’t try it out in Africa first.

There’s been a lot of speculation that the next great digital innovator will come from Africa. Do you think that idea holds true?

Maybe not because they are African, maybe because they embrace the spirit of Africa and how to prosper in Africa—just being able to understand the challenges and constraints that a terrain like Africa presents, and being able to make something out of it in terms of a product that scales and grows. Then being able to learn that mindset and the mindset of resource constraints and multiple challenges that have to be navigated. I think that’s a useful ingredient for someone to become the next Steve Jobs.

Will improved access to connectivity and information speed the pace of innovation?

Increased access to connectivity, yes. And perhaps it will contribute to new innovations. But more importantly, to contribute to faster adoption of existing innovations. Because I think we’ve reached that point that if there is a big problem in the environment, then someone has already thought about it and tried to fix it. And many of the people have failed. And one of the contributors to failure is adoption rates. If adoption rate can be increased by better infrastructure and connectivity, that means innovations will be taken up faster and become more impactful.

 

What roles do brands have to play here? How can they drive adoption or support local innovation?

If I were [a large multinational corporation], I would not try and do it myself, because they don’t have the nimbleness or the mindset. We have seen people try to be like that, and it’s very difficult for a large corporation that has this American structure that is very rigid—for good governance, for all those reasons that reduce flexibility and nimbleness.

The characteristics of your typical corporation will not allow them to move fast. [However] such corporations should function as an ecosystem and be a catalyst for the growth of the ecosystem through supporting and creating partnerships that could be either revenue-share arrangements or investment arrangements with some of these innovative organizations that are coming up or even supporting hubs. And when that happens, brands can very easily be associated with the success attributed to the support that this large brand offers.