Sometimes cliches are the only way to communicate the sheer breadth and depth of the transformation now undergoing in the informal sectors, such as trade and light manufacturing, thanks to affordable smartphones and data bundles.
I began calling it digital and not online yesterday when we discovered many people didn’t recognize the word “online” in a question, and thought of it as their smartphone or an app. The next billion online, with their prepaid airtime on low cost devices, have recognized the market potential of the “internet” in the form of Facebook but do not yet recognize the concept of either “online” or the internet.
It was commonly perceived as things you could do with a smartphone that you couldn’t with a feature phone. MPesa, with its robust USSD system, could be used with a 15 year old phone, and thus, like sending a text, or making a phone, has become a basic feature of their mobile phone.
Everything else is magic.
Kenyans have leapfrogged more than just landline infrastructure in their embrace of mobile telephony. They also leapfrogged conceptual understanding of the internet, websites, HTML, and pages, that those of us who began with desktop or laptop computers had visualized conceptually as a model for our own need to understand the system.
We’re seeing wholly new ways of thinking about apps, tools, and services in the “digital world” – which, I find, is the easiest way to describe the span of technologies that most developing countries must straddle – from 2G to 4G and 5G, African countries can’t afford to turn off 2G like Singapore can. Too many people are still using old Nokias, and I was able to purchase an unboxed 2009 model Nokia for $25 in Nairobi’s Central Business District last week.
The future will remain unevenly distributed in the digitization of the informal economies of developing countries, but this is giving rise to interesting developments. Where the system is technologically “backward” as compared to the linear progression in the developed world, it will not have a development path to follow but will and does go off in its own direction of transformation.
What we are seeing here in Kenya is a hybrid digital economy that can be accessed by both featurephones and smartphones, the only caveat being the tradeoff made on the richness of information streams available for each category of device.
This to me also feels like what the mobile internet experience will be like for another decade in Kenya, and a local approximation of societal and demographic change for any other developing country context.
What will not change is the vast majority data management habits – 97% of Kenyan mobile subscribers are on prepaid airtime plans, although there does seem to be a segment of customers who are beginning to see the advantages of postpaid services. I met one of Kenya’s 3% – a Safaricom Platinum customer.