Imagine an alternate reality.  You’re an innovative start-up like Twitter or perhaps one of the many “adjacent possible” enterprises that Twitter has spawned.  You’ve designed your new service and are ready to take over the world.   All you need to do now is negotiate access with each and every ISP in all of the geographic regions where you would like your application to be available.  What?  Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it but in fact this is what Nathan Eagle has had to do to launch his txteagle service in Eastern Africa.

If you haven’t already go and watch Nathan’s Etech talk.  It is both inspiring in terms of the potential that txteagle represents for leveraging the cognitive resources (not surplus) of developing countries and in terms of being packed with interesting information about mobile developments in Eastern Africa.

HOWEVER, one thing struck a real false chord in his talk.  He represents the mobile industry in Africa as an effective competitive marketplace.  I wish this were true.  He points out that the mobile market has tripled in size in the last three years in Kenya and he recounts an episode in which someone stuck a free SIM card in hand as he was getting into a taxi. He goes on to say that there is now an “all out war for market share in Kenya”.  There may be a war for market share, HOWEVER, it is a marketing war and not a price war.  While the network costs for mobile use may have declined marginally in the last few years, they are still nothing like competitive.

I am not quite sure why he misses this.  It may be the close relationship he is obliged to maintain with the mobile operators.  In his talk he points out that the Kenyan incumbent, Safaricom, will earn a billion USD in revenue this year.  Minutes later he highlights the fact that his initial attempts to establish SMS-based real time blood-bank monitoring in Mombasa failed because nurses were unwilling to pay the cost of an SMS to update the database. He says:

if you’re working at a local hospital, a text message is a substantial fraction of your day’s wage”

Now put those two facts together.  A billion dollars in revenue and an SMS is a substantial fraction of your day’s wage.  Hmmm.

Nathan had to resort to paying nurses the equivalent of three SMSes for every day they updated the blood-bank.  I love the ingenious way he found to make the system work but it does highlight what a throttle to innovation the high cost of communication is.

Recent research from ResearchICTAfrica reveals that Kenyans are spending incredible amounts on mobile communication as a proportion of income.  Here’s how it breaks down.  The average Kenyan spends over 50% of their disposable income on mobile communication. For the bottom 75% of the population, that figure goes up to 63.6%.  In terms of total individual income, the average Kenyan spends 16.7% of their income on mobile communication.  That figure rises to 26.6% when looking at the bottom 75% of the population.  These figures are astounding.  It highlights the fact that Africans are paying for mobile communication in spite of how expensive it is, not because of how affordable it is.

It also emphasises how critical access to mobile communication is for people. Nathan makes an important point when he says the fact that no one in Kenya can afford not to have a mobile phone.  Even if you are digging a ditch by the side of the road, day labour is now organised via SMS.  This means that mobile operators have Kenyans by the throat.

He gives another example about a water pump manufacturer in Kenya who, by combining an mobile-mPesa-enabled, solar-powered metering system with their water pumps, have completely changed their business model.  They are now able to give water pumps away for free (if I understand correctly) and then make a profit by selling access to water via Safaricom’s mPesa service.  Send the pump 20 Ksh and it pumps 20 litres of water for you.  This has increased the water pump companies business and made water more accessible to those who need it.  Nathan suggests that this benefits everyone.  He says:

“Michael Joseph (CEO of Safaricom) loves this because you have to have a Safaricom account to get water.”

Am I the only one who finds this a little disturbing?  When a single mobile operator is a gatekeeper to water supply, something is wrong.  For any village in this situation, Safaricom can charge whatever they like.

The failure of communication regulators in Africa to either license sufficient new market entrants or to curb the excesses of incumbents with significant market power has led to a situation where existing operators collude to maintain high profits.  The cost of SMSes is a great example of this.  If we accept the premise that, in places like Kenya, no one can afford not to have access to a phone, then one cannot help but feel that something needs to be done.  A flour milling company in South Africa was recently fined more than 45 million Rand by the Competition Commission for price fixing and collusion.  I think it is time to take a serious look at mobile operators.

Equally the fact that mobile operators are walled gardens (Why can’t I pay the water pump with my Zain phone?) means that innovators like Nathan are going to be comparatively far and few between.

Imagine an alternate reality where Africans paid less than 5% percent of their income on mobile communications and all phones operated on an IP-based network so that any new African innovation might be unlimited in terms of scope.  Then we would see mobile-enabled social and economic innovation taking off in Africa.

The unfortunate reality is that Nathan and TxtEagle need the goodwill of the mobile operators in the region to do business.  Imagine if you had to woo Internet Service Providers host your web application knowing that they could shut you down on a whim.   For me, the remarkable innovation that is TxtEagle only highlights how broken the mobile environment is for real innovation in developing countries.

Posted by Steve Song

@stevesong local telco policy activist. social entrepreneur. founder of @villagetelco #africa #telecoms #opensource #privacy #wireless #spectrum #data