‘Techpreneurs’ find niche in development of phone software

The world’s most influential mobile phone. Photo/AFP
The world’s most influential mobile phone. Photo/AFP 

With his neat haircut, simple T-shirt and heavy back-pack, Amos Gichamba looks like any other university student.

But unlike many of his peers, the 20-something year-old student has been interviewed by media giant CNN, who came calling last year to find out more about what the young man is carrying in his pocket.

CNN was attracted by Mr Gichamba’s software creation dubbed ‘M-Kulima’, which targets co-operative societies and milk processors and is used for monitoring dairy farmers’ deliveries and payments.

It runs on mobile phones, and gives dairies the ability to monitor the amount of milk delivered by individual farmers at collection points.

From the program, daily, weekly, monthly or annual reports can be retrieved showing deliveries to specific collection centres or the total amount of milk collected by a SACCO or milk processor.

Mr Gichamba is currently fine-tuning the application for use in the tea and coffee sectors.

“The development of mobile applications is a niche which has the potential to contribute to the economic growth of Kenya. With support, many Kenyans will benefit from brilliant and locally made mobile applications, which address all sectors of our economy including agriculture, manufacturing, education, entertainment and other key services,” Mr Gichamba said.

Globally, the development of mobile phone applications has become a $6.8 billion business.

In 2009 alone, a total of 7 billion application downloads were done globally.

The undisputed leader of the pack was Apple which, with over 4 billion downloads to date, commands 90 per cent of the application market share .

However, new players are rapidly entering the market, as the increasing uptake and usability of phone devices boosts the mobile application market further.

Research house Gartner estimates the global mobile application market will be worth $24.4 billion in the next five years, growing at a annual rate of 64 per cent from 2009 to 2015.

In East Africa there are 50 million mobile phone subscribers and at least 15 million mobile web users.

Across the region, the number of IT graduates and tech entrepreneurs is exploding, providing new opportunities to foster social and economic growth.

In Kenya, where mobiles are accessible to 60 per cent of the population, the high uptake of the technology is pushing a growing number of local software developers to create solutions to tap into the global growth.

Over the last two years, the country has quietly ridden the wave of increased earnings from software development.

Kenya has already made Sh700 million from software development this year, up from Sh500 million last year.

The majority of investments are in mobile applications.

“Growing areas include mobile commerce and products for the health, hospitality, agriculture and education industries, especially in African settings,” said Paul Kukubo, Chairman of the Kenya ICT Board.

The ICT Board says most revenue is gained from Scandinavian and European countries, that are being targeted by Kenyan developers and whose interests lies in mobile commerce applications, bio-tech and animation solutions.

But Kenya’s innovative use of mobiles to transfer money through applications like M-Pesa or Zap and the rapidly rising number of people accessing the internet through their mobiles is attracting companies like Google, Facebook, Nokia and most recently, the US State Department to invest in identifying new applications that can be scaled globally.

“There is significant entrepreneurial, innovative and technical talent in East Africa that can be harnessed,” said Judith McHale, US Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the US Department of State.

Early this month, the State Department launched an initiative aimed at enticing local software creators to leverage mobile technology for global applications.

Dubbed ‘Apps 4 Africa’, the initiative will take the form of a contest to build the best digital tool to address challenges in areas ranging from healthcare to education and government transparency to election monitoring.

Already, the shifting dynamics in the mobile and software markets have boosted the creation of a number of informal mobile development labs, usually set up by students at universities who want to tap into the global growth market.

In the halls of Kenya’s higher learning institutions, students are creating mobile applications that they hope will change business processes in similar fashion.

A year ago, University of Nairobi student Linnet Kwamboka decided to investigate how M-Pesa worked and stumbled into the world of mobile phone development.

She has since created a data collection application geared at companies who want to tap into consumer trends.

“The mobile phone has becoming a critical tool for gathering data and keeping up with trends. Actually, mobile developers in Kenya are struggling to keep up with users who want to push their mobiles to do more,” said Ms Kwamboka.

In general, analysts say the number of developers has increased over the last two years because of the demand for their skill set - in particular web and mobile application developers.

Unofficial home

Until recently, Strathmore was the unofficial home of software developers in the market.

Earlier this year, a specialized development hub was created to bring together the efforts of software artists in the country.

The iHub now plays host to over 100 developers, who meet regularly to share ideas at specialised mobile workshops often hosted by international giants such as Google and Nokia.

“The interest levels are high – developers attend the sessions and eventually go on to learn the tools in more detail on their own,” said Jessica Colaco, iHub Manager.

Nokia is already promoting two locally made applications - Afro Hot and Wazzup – on its global application store called Ovi which were by developed by two students at University of Nairobi.

In stock market terms, developer mindshare is one of the hottest “commodities” in the mobile business, one whose “stock price” has ballooned in the last two years.

Players in the mobile industry, from hardware vendors and handset manufacturers to networks, are now vying to win software developer mindshare, in order to add value on top of their devices and networks.

Hoping to cash in on the changing dynamics in the mobile sector, Safaricom has now moved to secure budding talent in order to build on increased earnings from the segment.

“Local developers are very much welcome to work with us. We are working with universities towards this end,” said Michael Joseph, Safaricom CEO.

The Safaricom Academy at Strathmore is geared towards creating the necessary competence through leveraging on existing academic institutions by enhancing their curricula to create this competence.

The Academy owns an incubation centre that offers an environment where young minds will be able to develop and create innovative applications.

In contrast to trend in the global market, Kenyan developers are working to create solutions on Symbian (Nokia’s platform) due to the high uptake of Nokia phones in this market.

“Nokia’s Ovi has the largest penetration in the marketplace. Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android are yet to gain use in Kenya,” said Mbugia Njihia of Symbiotic, a local software house.

For larger software developers such as Symbiotic and Turnkey Africa, the changing trends have forced a shift in focus from PC based solutions to mobile apps.

Brian Ambajah, Head of Marketing and Business Development Turnkey Africa said the firm was now focusing on developing smaller, more tactical solutions.

“These extend the functionality of existing applications and provide for new distribution channels and growth opportunities for software development,” said Mr Ambajah.

At government level, the ICT Board of Kenya is currently formulating a plan that will see it create an IT services division.

This plan hopes to formalise the software industry and create a new revenue centre that the country can leverage to increase its earnings from the services sector.

Larger share

Services are contributing to a larger share of the country’s GDP, achieving a 29.5 per cent jump in growth contribution to GDP last year, up from 15.5 per cent five years ago
Globally, the success of Apple’s App Store has not only established the salability of mobile applications, but has also shown that the best of these offer the potential to generate enormous revenues.

Gartner states that by 2013, more than 21.6 billion apps will be sold for a total of $29.5 billion.

“As smartphones grow in popularity and application stores become the focus for several players in the value chain, more consumers will experiment with application downloads,” Stephanie Baghdassarian, research director at Gartner.

“Games remain the number one application, and mobile shopping, social networking, utilities and productivity tools continue to grow and attract increasing amounts of money,” said Ms Baghdassarian.