Report from Africa: Regional Challenges and Opportunities for the Java ME Platform

By J.D. Moore and Daniel Orwa Ochieng, November 2008  

This article expands on the opportunity, value, challenges, and practicalities of developing mobile services for "the next billion users" in one of the most exciting emerging markets: Africa.

Introduction, From Outside and Inside
The African Potential
Fruitful Strategies
The FM Radio MIDlet
Emerging Services
Introduction, From Outside and Inside

According to Portio Research, "Africa offers great future potential as 'the last billion' when markets everywhere else are reaching saturation." There are huge opportunities, from the outside, for socio-economic impact, for leadership in this field, for profit, and for fun.

From the inside, the flip side are the challenges in a place where the majority of people in rural areas survive on less than US$1 per day. Mobile phone applications should serve basic needs, to be successful. In addition, mobile services must contend with lack of electricity supply, harsh environmental conditions (e.g., dust), low literacy levels, and cultural beliefs regarding technology use.

The African Potential

Sources show a huge upside to subscriber growth in Africa, with a US$429 billion market willing to spend on mobile services (2007). The following table shows comparative figures from the United Nations. Additionally, in South Africa, for example, over 76 percent of the population relies on mobile telephones, versus 9.2 percent on fixed landlines.

Figure 1: Africa vs. North America

The Java technology installed base is projected to surpass North American numbers by 2010.

As of May 2008, 95 percent of mobile cellular subscribers in Africa used pre-paid services. Figure 2 shows snapshots of a few of many current manufacturers and network operators or service providers.

Figure 2: Current Devices and Network Services

At the time of this writing, some of the Nokia devices for sale in Africa were the classic 2600 Series 40 and the 1200 Series 30 (which has the Amharic UI and keypad, multiple phonebooks, a built-in flashlight, and up for 390 hours of standby time -- but no Java technology). The 2600 is Java-enabled and includes the following Java technologies: CLDC 1.1, File Connection and PIM API (JSR 75), Bluetooth API (JSR 82), Mobile Media API (JSR 135), Security and Trust Services API (JSD 177), JTWI (JSR 185), Wireless Messaging API (JSR 205), MIDP 2.1, and Nokia UI API.

For example, when one of our phones needed servicing while we were in Kenya in 2007, we were struck by the nature of the repair shop, shown in the following picture. All potential low- and high-tech tools are considered, and the repair person is pushed to ingenious and resourceful solutions.

Figure 3: A Repair Shop in Kenya
Fruitful Strategies

Such challenging conditions make ease-of-use considerations even more important. Our work has shown us several strategies that bring success. In the theoretical realm, the most important lesson is to avoid top-down development. Instead, get in touch with the people who will actually be using the application and mobile device, perhaps via Contextual Inquiry. Field testing and Usability studies are highly recommended. After all, the "technology literacy" levels may be much lower than expected.

Figure 4: Author with research participants

Mobile user-interface heuristics have shown these factors as critical in ease-of-use:

  • Be consistent and build on experiences found locally in the user's environment
  • Offer efficient menus, avoiding deep hierarchies -- particularly critical where there is rampant illiteracy.
  • Provide clear feedback in the local language, for optimum comprehension.
  • Let the user be in control, including decisions on resource usage (cost control).
  • Simplify dialog boxes and navigation, and expect to deal with diversity via a simple user interface.
  • Offer useful text labels with localized iconography (culturally sensitive).
The FM Radio MIDlet

As an example of these theories in action, Gergely Herenyi of Nokia developed this FM Radio Reference MIDlet, posted on the Nokia Forum. The MIDlet supports user-generated localization for an application to connect people to community radio stations. You can download the full source code from that site as well.

Several factors become critical when developing mobile applications for Africa.

Power can be scarce at present in Africa. According to United Nations figures, "Almost one-third of the estimated 1.6 billion people living without access to electricity worldwide live in Africa." Therefore it is important to conserve power when possible.

  • Powersave mode: gradually decreases volume and allows the user to make the MIDlet close after a set time.
  • Visibility of battery level: lack of Full Canvas so as to always make battery level visible.
  • Limited animations and polling: intentional lack of power-intensive animations or computation such as polling.
Figure 7: Power Save Settings

Harmonization is the idea that mobile services should be offered over SMS, GPRS (Internet) and voice channels where applicable. This is important as many users may not have access to one or more at any given time.

  • GPRS: data transport available through GPRS.
  • SMS: data transport available through SMS.
  • Voice: not available in the app, but voice can be received over the radio and the phone itself can be used to make a voice call.

As harmonization of data transfer options is important., the developer simply implemented a fall-back mechanism for data traffic: first it tries to use the cheaper GPRS connection for data transfer; if that is not available, it falls back to use SMS as transport mechanism.

Figure 5: Language Download

Cost , or Cost saving, is vitally important--especially in regions where average income levels are low.

  • GPRS preferred: GPRS is preferred data transport method, but can still be dismissed, as GPRS tends to be much cheaper than SMS in many regions.
  • Free content: FM Radio is free!
  • SMS or Voice: The user can choose the most cost-effective method of communicating with the FM radio station.
  • Subject template: a pre-defined template can potentially save round-trip SMS or waiting in call queues if the FM radio station and listener population have agreed on set templates for set types of communications.

Figure 6: A Radio Station and its Station Manager

Localization is a key feature when developing MIDlets for linguistically-diverse regions and was a main focus during the development of the MIDlet.

  • User generated localization: an FM radio station can create a localization pack and send it over SMS to the listener.
  • User generated functions: similar to Relevance, the function text strings of the FM radio MIDlet can be localized by a local entity.

That is, the radio stations can provide additional language packs for the MIDlet, which can be generated by the local community. Also the MIDlet can provide additional explanations in local language before the core platform ask for permissions to access the web or to send an SMS, which pop-ups cannot be localized by the MIDlet.

Figure 8: Three Screens Localized, as an Example

Distribution is vital to getting a MIDlet deployed, but the other aspects of the tropically tolerant framework--such as network and cost--can make it difficult.

  • Wrapping: This concept is not implemented in the Beta version, but there exists a possibility to wrap the MIDlet and send it virally over Bluetooth.

Relevance is critical to the success of a MIDlet in Africa because a large percentage of users are on limited incomes and thus will be very judicious when choosing technologies to use or pay for.

  • Interactive FM Radio: this MIDlet is based on the fact that interaction with FM radio (both listening and calling or texting in) is very common behavior in Africa.
  • User generated functions: similar to localization, the functionality of the FM radio MIDlet can be highly relevant to any given community, as that community can generate the functions themselves.

Network connectivity can be unreliable at times--generally more so than in fully developed regions.

  • Visibility of Network signal: similar to visibility of battery level, lack of full canvas is used so as to always make the network signal visible.
  • Fallback mechanism: if GPRS is not available, the MIDlet will attempt to use SMS instead.

Note: Due to the Nokia S40 JME Platform, not all Platform-controlled commands are available for this type of localization. This seems to be a shortcoming in the Nokia S40 JME Platform in terms of customizability by JME developers.

Emerging Services

Java technology can be used for so many of the emerging needs on the African mobile landscape: mobile banking, education, chat, mapping medical transfers, route logging, conservation, email, stock trades, blogging, search, news, and web access. Here are several examples of successful market services.

This year saw one of the most successful value-added services in Africa being the M-Pesa, a mobile money-transfer service in Kenya. It has more than 6,000 registrations per day, with transfers of over 6 million Kenyan shillings per day. Part of its success is due to its simple user interface.

MXit, a global instant-messaging program, sends and receives via the internet, rather than SMS. Users can send up to 1,000 characters at a fraction of the cost of SMS.

Secure SMS is also popular: It is an encrypted-message routing via SMS-C, where the user decrypts incoming messages with a key.

Mobile Blog, favored by mobile business users or journalists, is used to send stories to popular radio stations and blogs.

Finally, downloadable Mobile Map Services are frequently employed. Since many African roads are not signed (or labeled), these maps use landmarks within a city to show directions. It is popular among teenagers.

Figure 9: A Mobile Map Showing City Landmarks

With its unique challenges, Africa remains a huge opportunity for Java developers. The big players are already involved, and this world is both Java and non-Java. Take the time to understand the exciting opportunity, value, challenges, and practicalities of developing mobile services for the emerging market that is Africa. You may well tap into "the next billion users" and be a part of helping to build that community.

About the Authors

J.D. Moore is User Experience manager, Emerging Market Services, at Nokia. Daniel Orwa Ochieng is a lecturer at the School of Computing and Informatics at the University of Nairobi's College of Biological and Physical Sciences, in Kenya. He is studying for his doctorate in Philosophy.

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