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Facebook Zero, feature phones and the ‘next billion’ users

ImageGraphic from the BBC and data from SocialBakers
On October 4th, 2012, Facebook passed the billion user mark. These users generated some 1.13 trillion ‘likes,’ 219 billion photos and 17 billion location check-ins. Launched in 2004, and well established in markets like North America and Europe, Facebook increasingly looks to places like Africa for the next billion users.

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It is no surprise there will be more mobile phones on the planet than people before the end of this year. Statistics released to coincide with the Facebook announcement revealed there were now 600 million users accessing the site via a mobile device – up 48 million from 552 million in June this year. That said, penetration is still relatively low in places like Asia and Africa – below 7 per cent in Asia and just over 5 per cent in Africa. This leaves plenty of potential users still to gain in these markets and clearly a mobile strategy is the future for the company.

In Africa, Facebook has targeted the use of basic phones known widely as ‘feature phones.’ They are unable to display the full-featured site, but instead can use specially created variations of the network. In May 2010, Facebook announced the launch of Facebook Zero, a text-only version of Facebook that can be accessed at 0.facebook.com. In the 18 months after Facebook Zero launched in Africa, the number of Africans on Facebook grew by 165%. Certainly working directly with the telecom providers, and offering the service for free to users, has done a lot to spread the network.

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Looking to further expand its reach, Facebook took the next step when it acquired Snaptu last year for a reported 60-70 million USD. This strategic investment underpins the project called ‘Facebook for Every Phone.’ Snaptu specializes in enabling the development of apps for low-cost feature phones. Their cloud based application approach means their apps work on more than 2,500 devices, indeed many of the feature phones that can be found across the continent.

As the company looks to reach the next billion users we can assume there will be a continued focus on Africa.

Celebrating a growing technology community in Cameroon

So exciting to see Djoss.tv win the Cameroon Startup Challenge 2012. It was an electric evening with so much positive energy.

My first trip to Cameroon was in the spring of 2011. Amazing to see what kind of progress is being made only a year and a half later. It is exciting to see the ranks of technology entrepreneurs grow in the country. Also the quality of startups has greatly improved and I noticed a serious focus on business models. Several teams have gone through multiple iterations of their product before refining concepts that have real potential to gain traction.

In fact, a recent visitor from Nairobi remarked that the Kenyan entrepreneurs have something to learn from their Cameroonian counterparts. Indeed, it might seem that the constraints placed on entrepreneurs in the country forces them to focus – working faster with less resources. It was also noted technology entrepreneurs in Nairobi are sometimes hesitant to close their computers and speak with actual customers, when most of the teams in Cameroon spend a great deal of time and effort on market research.

Almost not a week goes by that we don’t read about the launch of another fund in Nairobi, an accelerator in Ghana or a competition targeting startup entrepreneurs in Nigeria. Its herd mentality with everyone piling into the same plane. Maybe Cameroon doesn’t get the same attention because people are less familiar with the operating environment or the government has done less to bolster its image. Certainly there is less sector support. That said, the quality of innovators we know in Cameroon are on par with any we have met.

There should be a podium for technology entrepreneurs in every country, and the Cameroon Startup Challenge 2012 is another step for the community in Cameroon. These individuals, in every community, are critical if we are to solve difficult social, economic and environmental problems. They are an important part of our future. Their path is not an easy one and it is important to take a step back and to recognize the progress being made.

It is hard work and these guys are blazing a new path for hopefully many generations to come. Already we see new teams of entrepreneurs staking their ground. These are still the early days of many exciting times ahead. Congrats to the team at Djoss.tvKingMaker and Agro-Hub!

A startup challenge that celebrates Cameroon’s top innovators

When Bill Zimmerman (my co-founder at VC4Africa) approached me with the idea for the Cameroon Startup Challenge, it took me about 3 second to make my decision….this is just something we just have to do! The competition offers a cash prize of USD $5,000 for the most innovative web, mobile or hardware-based business venture in Cameroon. Sanaga Ventures, a joint seed stage investment company between Bill and myself, puts up the prize money.

My first trip to Cameroon was about a year ago. Bill and I were working intensively on the launch of VC4Africa and had decided to build most of the site with colleagues in Buea, a student town at the base of Mount Cameroon (or what the local techies like to call Silicon Mountain).

The trip was a chance to meet people like Helen, Valery, Fua, Mohamed, Fritz, Al, Churchill and many others in person. Much of this community was connected through ActivSpaces, an upcoming tech hub that is now the country’s leading platform for tech entrepreneurship. On this trip we facilitated a business model workshop with some of the ActivSpaces members and hosted VC4Africa meetups in Buea and Douala. Needless to say, my time in Cameroon convinced me there is talent capable of innovating on a continental (Njorku is widely claimed as the continent’s first Job search engine) and global level. See a video for an impression.

Since this trip we have only increased our activities. Now VC4Africa is for the most part developed and maintained by Zinger Systems, a local software firm. We have also developed other projects including the VC4Africa mobile website with two developers Mohamed and Ebot. And as a community (people like Al Banda, Valery, Fua, Rebecca, Bill, myself and many others) we work to support the development of ActivSpaces as the leading platform for tech entrepreneurs in the country. Finding support hasn’t always been easy as Cameroon is not often ‘on the list’ in the same way support is channeled to Kenya, Uganda or Ghana. Exceptions are enterprising organizations like Indigo Trust. But step by step, these various pieces are coming together and a lot of progress is being made. We learn of new projects and promising ventures every day. Now we have a chance to build on these foundations and to extend our efforts to new networks of entrepreneurs in the country. If anything this challenge is a precursor to what is possible and to show the world what kind of innovations are coming from this space.

See the details for the competition and we look forward to announcing the winner in July.

What does Africa look like in terms of population?

I like HackerNews because I always find one or two surprises. This DayOneData project by Peter Main was the latest find. He basically looks to re-imagine the world in terms of population. India and China crowd the global map, and the US takes a commanding third. Looking closer at the African continent we can see usual suspects like Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa and Morocco. But more interesting is the size of the population in countries like Ethiopia (+/- 88 million), Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. These countries don’t usually get a lot of positive press, but looking at their potential consumer base, are potentially major economic engines in the making. It is expected that Ethiopia could become the most populous nation on the continent, eventually surpassing Nigeria. Given the continent’s youthful population it will be interesting to see what this map looks like in 2050.