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Apps target Africa's feature phones

News, 02 August 2016

AFRICA: Africa's mobile operators are encouraging the development of apps for use with feature phones, which remain the most widely owned mobile device on the continent.

Orange, for example, has just opened a development lab in Cameroon, joining two others it has launched in West Africa in the past year – in Ivory Coast and Senegal.

"Africa isn't a lagging copycat market to the US or Europe," observed Benedicte David, regional head of strategy and customer experience at Orange.

"What works here won't necessarily fit there," he told Bloomberg. "There are specific local needs and opportunities."

Those include everything from farming to football. Orange has backed a number of services providing information on agricultural commodity prices and availability, while its Football Fan Club application offers a text message service for soccer scores and stats.

The latter may be a low tech option but it generates more revenue than a similar smartphone app, as customers query the platform through text message more than one million times a month.

"Text messaging has its limits – no pictures, short text... But it allows us to reach a much bigger crowd," noted Arnauld Blondet, head of product marketing for Africa and the Middle-East at the Orange Technocentre.

Around one third of people in sub-Saharan Africa own a feature phone, compared to just 9% who possess a smartphone; 57% don't own any sort of mobile device, according to GSMA data.

Mobile operators have calculated that they can increase their income through offering more services that the majority of their existing consumers can use. As well as developing apps themselves they are also making parts of their network technology available for entrepreneurs to integrate their new services into.

It has launched #303#, an app store based on USSD technology through which service providers can deliver mobile services to any type of phone.

And as Orange has also come up with a high-tech way for consumers to boost their accounts to help pay for these services: NFC Coins.

This is a contactless solution to the widespread problem of a lack of change and small coinage in Africa. Customers with an NFC tag on their mobile can have change returned to them in the form of airtime credit.

Data sourced from Bloomberg, Orange; additional content by Warc staff