Sunday, March 15, 2009

East African Cell Phones

When I was living in Nairobi, Kenya, a few years ago, I was amazed at the state of their mobile phone networks. There I was, in one of the poorest countries in the world, and everyone had a cell phone. Not only that, but cell phone coverage was nearly ubiquitous and the features built into their networks impressed me - even on my bottom-of-the-line Nokia cell phone that I used in Kenya.

Since the Internet isn't very common there, their cell phones were the most sophisticated piece of technology which they used for communications. Texting was widespread.

There are four features that their cell phone networks had, which we still don't have here, in the US.

1. Business Cards
Have you ever needed to give someone a phone number that's in your phone's address book? Ten years ago, I could beam it to another person on my Palm Pilot. Today, I can't even do that with my iPhone - via Bluetooth or otherwise. In Kenya, there was a "B card" option on the phone's menu. Simply choose a person from your address book whose number that you wanted to share and then choose the recipient. Within a minute, the recipient receives a text message asking them to review the contact information and then choose to either accept or reject it.

2. Busy Signal Call Back
When calling a number that was busy I could tell the phone system to keep trying the number, then I'd hang up and wait for the phone to ring back once the number wasn't busy. This reminds me of a circa 1980s technology (Demon Dialer) that would dial a number, automatically, until the line was no longer busy. I'm sure phones have this feature, here in the U.S., but it's neither common nor basic.

3. Missed Calls
I could turn off my phone and when I turned it back on the system would tell me which calls I missed. Can't do that in the U.S. I only get to see missed calls if my phone was on when the call came through or if the caller left a voicemail.

4. Text Message Payments
This feature still blows me away. Kenyans, like most Africans, are unbanked. They live payday to payday (at least they don't have to worry about the sub-prime mess) and, for the most part, they don't use: banks, computers, e-mail, iPods, etc. The two key technologies they use are cell phones and faxes – and they Kenyans were fantastic at filing and retrieving paperwork; never losing a page.

While we rely on computers, printers, and the Internet; they have substituted the cell phone, fax, and the wireless carrier's network. In place of PayPal and charge cards, they simply used their cell phones.

I'll never forget the moment when my driver told me about Safaricom's Sambaza, which launched the month I arrived in Kenya, as a simple way to share cell phone minutes. I was truly amazed, thinking, "Why can they do that here and we can't do it back in the U.S.?"

Unlike cell phone contracts and subscriptions plans we use here in the U.S., the Kenyans primarily use a pre-paid payment plan. In order to add, say $10 worth of minutes (or, more accurately, 10 KSh [Kenyan Shillings]), you'd simply buy a scratch-off card with that face value, scratch off the number, and enter it into your cell phone. This works exactly like pre-paid cell phones in the U.S. No need to worry about subscription fees (but the minutes do expire, just like here, if not used within a certain time.)

The one thing you can't do here that you could do there is transfer your minutes to each other. This became an instant form of electronic currency. For example, people who grew up in a village would move to Nairobi to find a job. They'd take a portion of their paycheck, purchase a pre-paid card, and add minutes to their cell phone. Then, they'd text some of their minutes to their mother living hundreds of miles away, in a rural village - yes, mom has a pre-paid phone with network coverage in the boonies. Mom would go to the local market and text some of her minutes to the grocer at the market to pay for food. Very elegant electronic barter.

Sambaza soon evolved into M-PESA that transferred actual money which, obviously, is a much better feature if you're looking to pull cash out of the system at some point.

The only hitch with Safaricom's system is that the sender and receiver had to use the same wireless carrier (different carriers are incompatible in a way similar to a Visa credit card's incompatibility with American Express). In Kenya, which only has two wireless carriers (Safaricom and Celltel), this wasn't much of a problem. However, there are even better ways to make this system carrier agnostic just like PayPal doesn't care which bank, credit card, or Internet service provider you use. What's the hold up here in the U.S.? Simply put: the Patriot Act.

1 comment:

Cell Phones said...

This is really a great piece of news about East African cell phones and the services that their network provides. A nice posting with all the details!!! :-)