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Even as Web apps proliferate, text messaging lives on in Africa

Vince Matinde | June 19, 2015
African telecommunications companies for years have fought off what they say is unfair competition by Web-based apps, but even though text messaging services from the legacy providers have been hit hard, they are clinging to life as people find new ways to use them.

African telecommunications companies for years have fought off what they say is unfair competition by Web-based apps, but even though text messaging services from the legacy providers have been hit hard, they are clinging to life as people find new ways to use them.

So-called over-the-top (OTT) services such as Whatsapp, Viber and Skype can let users send longer messages for a fraction of the price of SMS (short messaging service) services from the traditional telecom companies. Under pressure from the competition, Airtel Africa CEO Christian de Faria, recently asked governments to regulate the use of OTT services.

But even though communications technology on the continent has evolved, text messaging still proves to be useful. Various services have been built around SMS technology, which is still popular in rural areas.

According to the latest report by the Communication Authority of Kenya (CAK), SMS use has actually gone up.

"The number of Short Messaging Service (SMS) sent during the quarter increased by 9.1 percent to register 7.3 billion messages up from 6.9 billion messages sent during the last quarter," the authority said in its most recent report about text messaging in the country, for the last quarter of 2014.

While SMS appeared to be thriving, the OTT providers were cutting into the usage and revenue of multimedia messaging provided by telecom companies, CAK said in January.

Wayo, a research and survey company in Kenya that gives companies instant customer feedback, says that SMS is staying relevant in the age of multimedia, Web-based apps. The company uses a combination of mobile SMS, USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Services Data) and Web tools to collect customer views at the point of sale.

"SMS and USSD will still be pretty huge in Africa for the next three to five years especially in the lower middle class and the low end market, which is a huge percentage of the population," Wayo CEO Ernest Makotsi said.

"These people probably are not on social media and do not use email regularly. Brands still need to understand the needs at the 'bottom of the pyramid' market and we see SMS and USSD as a channel for that customer or user to voice and connect to brands, social enterprises and development agencies working in these communities," Makotsi added.

His enthusiasm is echoed by the fact that Kenya's most successful mobile application, the M-Pesa money service from Safaricom, heavily relies on USSD and SMS communications despite the great advancements of mobile devices.

"What is important is that at the moment SMS and USSD services can be accessed by everybody who has any type of mobile phone," Makotsi said. "This allows people to access services easily."

 

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