In many parts of the U.S., you can’t turn a corner without bumping into someone talking on their smartphone. In developing nations, this isn’t the case; cell phones are pervasive (57% of adults have cell phones in Sub-Saharan Africa), but few people have the iPhones and Android phones that are popular elsewhere.
Here’s the problem: Cell phones provide unprecedented opportunities for communication, but the basic phones used by people in, say, Kenya, don’t have the apps that many of us are so fond of. That might seem trivial, but the Internet penetration rate in Africa is only 10% to 15%—and that means there are a lot of people missing out on things that smartphone users routinely access, like email, mobile money transfer, and the Internet’s wealth of information. But while smartphones may have slick interfaces and app stores, there are plenty of ways to bring the functionality of apps to basic phones.
Africa’s Talking, a startup that’s currently incubating at Hub Ventures, wants to make it easy for developers to bring apps to cell phone users in Africa—something that isn’t so simple right now. "We have 700 million mobile phone users in Africa, spread out in 50 countries. Each country has mobile companies, and when you build an app that relies on mobile, you need to somehow connect to the mobile company," explains Eston Kimani, CEO and co-founder of Africa’s Talking. "Right now you have to deal with intermediaries and jump through hoops." A developer can put an app in Apple’s app store and forget about it, developing a product for Africa’s mobile market requires dealing with individual telecommunications companies.
The solution: An automated process that makes it possible for developers to easily disseminate their SMS-based apps via Africa’s Talking’s API.
It’s not as if SMS-based apps don’t already exist. M-Pesa, a mobile phone-based payment system, has 17 million subscribers in Kenya alone (not to mention other markets, including Tanzania and South Africa). It’s just difficult for small-time developers to launch SMS-based services, which have the opportunity to do a lot of good—think about the potential in the agriculture industry, where farmers could be alerted to current produce prices, or in health care, where people could be pinged when it’s time for them to take medication.
"We want to make it extremely easy for people to build apps for basic mobile phones and in doing that to really open up this space to allow basic mobile phone users to receive services that could change their lives," says Kimani.
Already, Africa’s Talking has created an email-to-SMS service that allows people to communicate via SMS like they are using email, as well as a service, SMSVoices, that allows people to share information on the web using SMS. The email to SMS service—dubbed SMSLeopard—is used by a doctor in rural Kenya who sends messages to his 200-person diabetic support group. SMSVoices has been used by a company looking to collect feedback from the public on upcoming elections in Kenya.
The Nairobi-based company is finishing up its time at Hub Ventures, where it is refining its product. The company, which charges customers on a per-message basis, is hoping to raise $500,000 to fully develop its API. Africa’s Talking’s services are only available in Kenya at the moment, but eventually the startup expects to expand elsewhere in Africa.