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Obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal
Moving pictures the next step for Africa’s mobile Internet users
Posted | April 26, 2011 05:15 AM
The speed with which Facebook has taken off on the African continent in the countries that are a bell-weather for early take-up has been impressive.

Twitter is trotting behind but with much smaller number but it’s only a matter of time. MXit has impressive up-take in South Africa. What has been missed in this social media explosion is the significance of moving pictures through things like You Tube and Vimeo. Russell Southwood argues that this surge will happen on mobiles and is not far around the corner.

Alexa.com does web site rankings by use for 14 African countries. The listing below shows the ranking of You Tube in those countries:

Egypt 3
Algeria 3
Tunisia 3
Mauritius 4
South Africa 4
Uganda 5
Tanzania 5
Congo-B 5
Kenya 5
Senegal 5
Nigeria 6
Ghana 6
Cote d’Ivoire 6
Madagascar 8

The incredible thing about these rankings is that a high level of use is clearly there well before the bandwidth exists to deliver it properly. I’m sitting here writing this in Accra and all of the videos I looked at were buffering after 30 seconds to a minute.

The young are clearly the main users and it is one indication of its popularity that a university in Ghana has to stop its students using in work hours, otherwise it simply swamps all the other things the students need and want to do. Yes, the University will get more bandwidth but it takes time and prices have not come down. It’s still at the ‘have somewhere bandwidth but pay the same’ stage.

Video content from and about Africa is very patchy. There’s a lot of certain kinds of genres (movies, music) but nothing on many other topics. Some examples give some idea of the take-up by number of views. Obviously not all these views come from the continent but based on our own experience (see below) more come from the continent than might be imagined by the more skeptical:

Nigerian music
Timaya/Platinum Boy 707,234
Ono 2 Sexy/Jusustina 401,778
I go chop Yo Dollar 151,326
(spoof by Nigerian comic)
Highlife from Ghana
(music by Tumi Ebow Ansa) 64,092

One recurring channel with high viewership is VIOAfrica which focuses on Nigerian music. Interestingly, the video clip phenomenon has already spawned a beta site called metv. It is “a content aggregation platform that allows the distribution of professionally made film content from the African continent on the internet. As storytelling goes, Africa is well known for its wealth and depth of this great tradition. metv africa bridges the gap between the storytellers and the listeners (viewers) in a web 2.0 way”. Now all it has to do is get the content…and as ever, that’s the difficult part.

Further along in this respect is Africanfilms.tv that will launch its site in June 2011 with 500 films that are being distributed on a non-exclusive basis using VoD. And then all they will have to do is attract the users…These observations are not meant badly but it will take time for someone to hit it right with something more than just a hobby site.

(It’s worth saying that this content is not only found on You Tube but also on Vimeo, which describes itself as a “respectful community of creative people who are passionate about the videos they make.”

At a more specialist level, advertising clips – particularly funny ones - are making their way on to You Tube in increasing numbers. A Tigo Networks ad simply titled Ghana Funny Ad got 36,355 views and at a more modest level the Vodafone Ghana – The chase ad got 1,136 views. Media companies like the Standard and the Nation in Kenya that already have a well developed web presence have found it easy to transfer news clips on to their site using You Tube. These are also available relatively cheaply to mobile users via Safaricom.

At an extremely specialist level, it has been interesting to watch the growth of our own Balancing Act Web TV Channel. In six months it has gone from nothing to around 2,000 views per month, well over 60% of which are coming from the continent. In a year’s time, the most watched videos (which is about 10% of them) will get 500-1,000 views each. Our total community of users is just over 10,000 because we deal with specialist topics.

It is incredibly easy making reasonably competent face-to-camera interview clips. It’s not television but it only takes one person, a small tripod and a camera that costs around US$300. (We are currently mourning the announced closure of Flip by Cisco). The cameras are also very light and can be easily slipped into a briefcase or even a pocket.

The continent has an extremely small press because in many countries people prefer to listen to the radio or watch television. If that general statement is true, then it is doubly or triply true for the 18-35 age group who are driving this kind of use. An advertising executive told me:”My girlfriend has given up buying a newspaper. She just looks at the headlines on her mobile. And she’s always got the news before me…” And it doesn’t take much imagination to see that headline clips and breaking news clips will be popular.

So how does this steady flow of video viewing (which will become a raging torrent once more bandwidth is in place) get on the mobile phone? Well, the easy answer is via the Internet and while smart phone numbers are still mainly in the hundreds of thousands, they could easily go over 25% of the user base in some countries. Once one of a group of friends is showing a funny or rude video, do you think those other friends won’t go home wanting a similar type of phone? At the right price, streamed or downloaded vide content will be a driver of smartphone take-up.

But getting a business model out of all that free stuff streaming over handsets must give the network planners sleepless nights. Sure, you can turn it off or shape it out of existence but it’s coming like a freight train so it will be hard to hold off.

The joint venture between MTN and DStv has been to make a Pay TV bouquet available via DVB-H handsets and deliver it over its own special network for a monthly subscription. You have to admire DStv for taking the plunge well before anyone one else but the early results are underwhelming. Subscribers are in the low thousands to low tens of thousands. The cost and availability of DVB-H handsets is a big hurdle to overcome for most potential users. Most people are not buying a handset to get mobile TV access: there’s a dreadful chicken and egg dilemma there.

The other route that is not really talked about is people buying cheap Chinese handsets that can receive analogue Free-To-Air TV transmissions. We have reports from a wide number of countries of people watching TV on tro-tros or matatus as they crawl through the ever-present traffic snarl-ups that infect every African city.

As ever, the answer to the ‘what is the business model?’ question is predictable but nonetheless requires getting right. It can be one of three things or some hybrid of them:

- A subscription model based on pre-paid scratch cards and Internet access.
- VOD paid again in pre-paid blocks of credits and each item cheap enough to make the user not hesitate.
- Sponsorship where a single advertiser gets to put its logo and colours all over the channel because it will impress the young demographic that they have their finger on the pulse.

www.balancingact-africa.com
 

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