Did I just find a farmer from rural Africa on Twitter ?

When I first used SMS (short messaging service) I didn’t think twice about what I was doing. When I first used Twitter I was stumped as to why someone would waste his or her time. Because these tools are so simple I was somehow unable to appreciate their full potential. 

But this changed when I started to explore different contexts for their uses. Needless to say, I am now increasingly interested in understanding both of these applications and their possible applications. In fact, I am rather enthusiastic as I start to understand that the strength of these tools might very well lie in their simplicity – the famous SMS is only160 characters long and Twitter cuts it down to 140. These restraints force the user to get to the point. It forces the user to communicate as efficiently and as effectively as possible and I believe this is why both services have taken off.

“SMS text messaging is the most widely used data application on the planet, with 2.4 billion active users, or 74% of all mobile phone subscribers sending and receiving text messages on their phones.” (Wikipedia)

The power of SMS is in its simplicity and global presence. The more the mobile phone is established as the de facto piece of technology the more SMS will become the leading tool for text-based messaging. 

“SMS derives its benefit from ubiquity (every modern cellphone can use it) and simplicity (there is no separate “SMS address” to learn, as with email). These usability advantages balance the fact that SMS messages are occasionally delayed or even dropped; in practice, most messages arrive fairly quickly.” (Wikipedia)

Astounded by these numbers I was even more surprised to learn that the SMS industry was worth over 80 billion dollars by 2006 alone. I can only imagine the size of the industry today. But it makes sense. The aphoristic nature of the technology makes it incredibly useful. It is simple and to the point. (Wikipedia)

Given the mobile phone revolution in Africa, the world’s fastest growing mobile phone market, I think the potential of SMS is quite clear.

“Cell phones play an important role in contributing to local economic development in African countries with 282 million mobile phone users out of a population of around 960 million. However, more than 300 million people living in rural areas still have no cell phone coverage, according to the GSM Association. Around 66% of the population are reached by a mobile phone signal, up from 62% in 2007. Some African countries, such as Egypt, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, already have a coverage well above 90%.” (Africa leads the way in global SMS messaging trends – Wednesday, 14 May 2008 – www.viapc-1.com)

Nowhere in the world is a short phone call or a short message worth as much as in Africa. The limited infrastructure and the enormous distances require the most efficient and effective means of communication. People pay dearly for each unit and only make use of their credit when they absolutely need to, when there is one single message that needs to be communicated. And this is exactly how SMS and Twitter work.

A quick scan on the Internet and you already come across a number of examples worth mentioning for this posting i.e. MTN’s successful service in South Africa.

“Through the Call Me service the caller can send up to 7 messages per day to a receiver who pays normal rates to return the call. This service is offered in South Africa where cell phone infiltration is high but a large number of people can’t afford to top-up their phones with airtime. This service averages more than 13-million messages a day (on the MTN network alone). (Africa leads the way in global SMS messaging trends – Wednesday, 14 May 2008 – www.viapc-1.com)

From this service its clear that SMS plays an important role in connecting people. The 7 SMS messages a day are actually seven chances people have to connect with someone they need to speak to. This is quite different from how I use SMS myself. I know I have a limit in the number of SMS messages I can send per month, but my plan is not so limited that I am forced to count them by the day. More interestingly, MTN has already been running this service for several years. They have a lot of experience in this area and are actually seen as innovators on the subject. They deal day to day with a list of problems and challenges that give them insights, knowledge and experience well beyond telecom operators in other parts of the world. 

“The use of SMS for banking services provides another example of African innovation. While the rest of the world is only starting to explore the use of SMS messaging for banking, MTN already has six years experience in the sector and has learnt many lessons during its early years in SMS banking. MTN found solutions to fraud problems, such as SIM swap, before international experts even identified these threats.” (Africa leads the way in global SMS messaging trends – Wednesday, 14 May 2008 – www.viapc-1.com)

The use of SMS extends well beyond South Africa and is used as a primary communication tool in a number of contexts:

“In the rest of Africa, where fixed line networks are poor, farmers now receive financial returns of up to 40% more for their produce as a result of pricing transparency facilitated by SMS messaging. SMS communications also enable young people in rural areas to find jobs in cities. Previously, responding to job adverts in the newspapers was futile as by the time a person traveled to the city the vacancy had been filled.” (Africa leads the way in global SMS messaging trends – Wednesday, 14 May 2008 – www.viapc-1.com)

These stories are multiplied millions and millions of times. Students in Harare use text messaging to mobilize grass root campaigns; farmers in Cameroon use SMS to text in questions to Internet information centers, woman in the market use SMS to check on the prices of their produce, a son sends an SMS with money to his parents in rural Kenya, and so forth and so forth.

A particularly strong example is the Internet trading platform TradeNet, an information service that enables farmers and traders in agricultural commodities in Africa to conduct business through the use of SMS.

“Tradenet services are completely free for users, except the normal sms messaging charges by the mobile phone service providers. Potential buyers looking for a specific commodity only need to compose an SMS stating the code of the commodity in question and the country from which they want the results and send it to a defined tradenet number for instant results. Traders can also register to receive regular SMS alerts on commodities from markets of their choice.”

You can see a short video of the service and some interviews with some of the developers.

It is clear that SMS is not perfect and that there are a number of challenges that need to be overcome. A recent Nokia presentation made clear that many of their users cannot actually read or write. For SMS to be effective the mobile phone will actually have to capture, transcribe and read voice for it to be useful. Needless to say, mobile phone companies like Nokia are working to solve these problems and there are a number of initiatives to develop on the success already achieved by SMS.

Another issue remains cost. For most people the hardware and the credit remain a serious cost and this hinders their access and use. At the same time, these are exactly the factors that force the user to be so efficient. Again, this is where I see the strength and the usefulness of SMS. Unlike Europe, an African farmer doesn’t have the time and the extra money to be sending frivolous messages to friends. He simply cannot waste his precious telephone credit. When he does decide to send a text message it’s because there is something important he needs to get done. This is also where I see an emerging potential for Twitter.

Just like SMS, Twitter focuses the user and asks them to think about what it is they want to say. In this way, I wonder if Twitter is not a bridge between Africa’s incredible mobile phone network and the Internet?

It is clear that the mobile phone and SMS are the leading communication tools on the continent. In a way, the short messaging habits and the services being used in Africa fit the same restraints offered by Twitter. There have already been some thoughts on the issue. Blogger Soyapi Mumba notes:

“So the launching of Twitter provided a good alternative considering that the use of mobile phones is much higher than that of computers. In Malawi for example, there are about 50,000 Internet users against about 700,000 mobile phone users out of a population of about 12 million. Twitter allows users to post a small update via SMS, instant messaging client and the web. Anyone who chooses to follow you will get that update on the Twitter home page, or their mobile phone if they choose to. Unlike most mobile phone web services, you can update via SMS from anywhere in the world and from virtually any handset.”

Some of the ideas he presents:

“General announcements to friends and relatives all over the world like illness, death, weddings, engagements, academic and professional achievements, births and maybe even Kitchen Top-ups 🙂

Scores, fixtures and general updates on of soccer games live from the stadium or after the game. Everyone is crazy about soccer, right?

General news and gossip including crazy odd news (e.g. “Nkhani za m’maboma” in Malawi)

Political Campaigns and news. Politics can be fun, you know.

Scripture reading and notes from a religious service. This can be our adaption of SXSW twitters where conference participants updated their friends on what was happening;)”

Another platform that makes use of both SMS updates and Twitter like postings is Ushahidi, Erik Hersman’s project to create a platform that monitors and tracks violent crimes. Ushahidi is in direct response to the recent Kenya election crisis.

The post election period in Kenya has seen a number of violent crimes take place. In trying to monitor the situation there are a number of initiatives working to document events on the ground.

The aim is to not only have a better understanding of what has/is happening but to see how we can spread the information.

The powerful idea here is that when an SMS or a Twitter posting has been received by the Ushahidi platform its published for the world to see. This is quite different then person to person messages that can be intercepted or deleted. Ushahidi works to make the messages public and openly available. 

I think a project like this might be only the beginning. As we start to understand simple tools like Twitter, and users increasingly develop new and increasingly creative uses for the tool, we will see the technology gain a presence similar to SMS. And like SMS, which only really became useful when the user took control and appropriated the technology, Twitter might very well find its use for that farmer in Cameroon.

Also see a related post on Twitter relevant to this discussion:

What Twitter’s Global Failure Means for Africa


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About zia505

The world is changing right before my eyes. Sometimes I don't know how I will ever keep up. There are so many ideas floating around on this internet. If only I had the means to collect them....

3 responses to “Did I just find a farmer from rural Africa on Twitter ?”

  1. rikus says :

    Hey Ben,
    Interesting collection of facts. I do believe that Twitter might have a role in parts of Africa although we do have to realize the small number of people who actually are connected. Twitter might “help” to bridge the gap between internet and mobile phone but learning basic computer skills might also do the trick….

    Add on to your post: Things like Bleeping or staying under a minute to cut the costs are big in Africa. People are really trying to cut costs and this influence way of use big time….cool stuff to look at.


  2. zia505 says :

    Thanks for your comments Rikus,

    Indeed, education is an important place to start. I have looked at your work in Zambia and can see some of the challenges that need to be overcome.

    I do think it is interesting when people learn how to use new tools without ever receiving an official training or course. To some extent this is possible through trial and error and to some extent these are processes we need to learn….maybe you have some more thoughts on this ?

    Look forward to being in touch!

  3. rikus says :

    Mobile phones are easy acces and affordable. They will have (and are having) a massive impact on the lives of many africans. Linking this to twitter seems like a logical first step….however, to access twitter people have to know their way around the basics of a computer and web browser. These are important steps that have to be learned one way or the other.

    When I was in Zambia I did a lot of workshops on the benefits of using the internet. I explained how to work wikipedia, google and locally produced content sites (like iSchool.zm). People were really interested but a lot of the time I noticed that they were unaware of how a web browser worked. In many casses, I should not have begun explaining the different options/sites that can help them bettering their teaching but I should have started with explaining the basics in how to get to these valuable sites.

    I do agree that it is possible to learn through trial and error but a lot of the people I met did not have the luxury of having an internet connection at home so the time they could spend behind a computer to ‘trial and error’ was often short and expensive. Mobiles in africa are really affordable…..internet connection isn’t. I think there is a lot of room for “trial and error learning” when it comes to affordable mobile applications but it might be to soon to expect the logical link between mobile and computer/internet connection on a large scale.

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