Across the African continent, internet penetration is low, computers are often too expensive to purchase, and online business transactions can be logistically complicated to execute. But the surge in mobile phone use - there are currently 695 million mobile phone subscribers in Africa - has given Africans a simple and pervasive means of sharing information and conducting business. In recent years, a few innovative African companies have found ways to harness the e-potential of mobile commerce and information sharing, changing the way in which Africans communicate and conduct business.
SlimTrader, founded by Nigerian Femi Akinde, is an e-commerce firm that is meant to ease the exchange of goods and widen the online markets for Africans. Mr Akinde and the SlimTrader team created Mobiashara, a mobile technology that allows users to search for and purchase products via text message. This technology provides retailer's information and inventory, and also partners with mobile payment providers such as M-PESA and MTN so someone can make a purchase with a press of a button on their mobile device. With partners such as Aero Airlines, SlimTrader even facilitates once complicated transactions such as buying plane tickets. Umuntu Media is another African-based host website that caters to the mobile world. Umuntu was founded only one and a half years ago by Johan Del, a native of Namibia. The idea of Umuntu, Mr Del explains, is to "close the local content gap, to provide users with information that is useful to them."
Umuntu provides local news, job listings, and directories specific to each country and region in which it operates. After only 18 months of operation, Umuntu has portals in nine countries, and its Namibia portal, iNamibia, is already the largest local website in Namibia.
After Umuntu took off in web and mobile form, Mr Del had a vision to use it as a springboard to further tap into mobile e-commerce with the creation of the mobile site, Mimiboard, which has been live for a month.
Mimiboard ('mimi' means 'I' in Swahili) is Mr Del's brainchild to deliver hyper-local content in the form of a traditional notice board. First, a mimiboard is created for a specific area. People in each community can post a notice to Mimiboard about wanting to buy or sell something, and then someone else can purchase the service posted through mimiboard.
"For example," Mr Del explains, "a fisherman in Mombasa can post about his catch of the day to mimiboard, then other users in the area can go buy the fish."
It uses the same technology that radio and TV stations use to feed live streams of texts from listeners and viewers and can be accessed through text, android phones, and online. Not only is mimiboard linked to the Umuntu sites of each country, but students from four big universities in Kenya have already started using Mimiboard as a platform to buy and sell textbooks - and a university dean in Canada has also inquired about using the product. Mimiboard is creating a space for local mobile notices while also creating new ways for users to earn money. The Mimiboard team has created its own currency, mimibucks, which incentivizes mobile transactions for users.
In Mr Del's words: "If someone wants to sell their car through a specific mimiboard, the person who created that mimiboard will receive a micropayment for the transaction."
He anticipates that Mimiboard will have a million users in the next ten months with the help of mobile bank and mobile advertising collaborations.
One such collaboration of Umuntu/Mimiboard is the relationship the company has with Primedia Online, which represents Umuntu in the digital ad business. Primedia Online supplies tailored news content in portals across the southern continent, in addition to providing technology and ad business to local publishers wanting to tap into the mobile market. Primedia business development manager Susan Hansford explains that advertising on mobile phones is more competitive now amongst companies.
"E-commerce shouldn't be in desktop form for Africa, I think the focused efforts on the mobile side of e-commerce will change the way business is done in this continent," she says.
"It should be noted however that the mobile demographic is a little different than e-commerce on computers, which would be more middle and upper class."
The mobile demographic is expanded to consist of people in small villages, and so it wouldn't make financial sense for an advertiser of high-priced consumer goods to advertise to this demographic.
Ms Hansford notes that the mobile environments in Africa are better suited to financial services, citing cheap funeral insurance and student loans as some of the top mobile advertisers. Although problems arise in the mobile e-commerce world such as product delivery, Africa has made great strides in conducting business online and on handhelds. Companies like Umuntu and SlimTrader have seen the opportunity for Africa on mobiles, an opportunity unique to Africa because of the importance of business at the micro-level, and the lack of other forms of technology.
As Mr Del puts it: "This type of technology we are working to develop is one that we hope will solve African problems while putting Africa on the map for innovative solutions."