The other day, over a delicious cappuccino at Javas, I got into a discussion with one of Uganda’s most famous innovators about the development of mobile apps in Uganda. As a developer, he had a lot of good points on why we should already be prepared with apps for when smartphone penetration rates rise. We agreed to disagree. I’ve compiled a list of 10 reasons for why I’m against NGOs developing custom apps.
1. Top Down Mindset: I’ve sat in several meetings where an organization tells me, “We want a mobile app”. Apps are hip, they’re sexy, they’re youth-focused and everyone wants to get into it since it fits with the current innovation funding themes.
2. Smartphone penetration: At the moment, smartphone penetration in much of sub-Saharan Africa is still quite low. The World Bank argues that smart phones with data connectivity “not only empower individuals but have important cascade effects stimulating growth, entrepreneurship, and productivity throughout the economy as a whole.” According to the Pew Research Center, the teledensity in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda for 2015 was 82%, 73% and 65% respectively. In South Sudan, mobile penetration is around 20% and in Malawi around 38%. Smartphone penetration was listed as 16%, 8% and 5% in Ke, Tz and Ug. According to another firm, M&C Saatchi Mobile, which released its research paper on the growth of the continent’s mobile growth, smartphone penetration is expected to peak at 40% in 2017.
3. Spread of existing inequalities: Using smartphone based tools has the potential to further increase existing inequalities. Since people with smartphones are more likely to be better off, they are also more likely to have access to the internet+information+apps and this is a good thing. However, persons without this same tool are completely left out of this ecosystem of access to information, furthering sliding down the scale of inequality. How do we intend to reach people who are already disadvantaged when we focus on those with an advantage?
4. Cost of Developing an App: Apps are costly to develop. Good apps, even more so. NGOs perhaps shouldn’t strive to also be tech companies.
5. Cost of Marketing an App: This is one of the bigger issues. As of July 2015, there were 1.6 million apps in the Android store and 1.5 million in the Apple store. So much of the success of an app depends on getting the word out and getting downloads. My concerns revolve around how does one differentiate their sexual education app from the thousands out there, or from just a quick google search?
6. Cost of data: Currently, on Airtel in Uganda, I pay UGX35,000 (~US$10 at time of writing) for 1GB of data. In Uganda, according to the New Vision, Unionist have been pushing to the government to fix the minimum at UGX250,000 (~US$74 at time of writing). This is about how much an educated school teacher makes a month. Using data for apps is still a prohibitive cost for many.
7. Existing platforms: Point 6 brings me to point 7! With services such as Free Basics from Facebook, several social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp are available either for free on mobile networks, or at a highly subsidized price. Why not reach youth where they already hang out? You want to collect data? Why not use apps that already exist such as Ona, Akvo Flow, Taro, Magpi etc. Or use Interactive Voice Response surveys #shamelessplug
8. Lack of electricity: One of the bigger issues as well, especially in much of rural Africa, and even in urban areas with frequent power cuts, is charging of cell phones. Smartphones required a daily charge, if not multiple daily charges, unlike feature phones which can last for days. Energy, on-grid and off-grid, continues to be a challenge in much of sub-Saharan countries.
9. Role in local tech ecosystem: There’s a sweet spot between what people need and what people want AND what they’re willing to pay for. I think it’s best when local developers take a social issue and develop a viable, sustainable product such Ensibuuko/TCMG/Barefoot Law in Uganda or Toto Health/Eneza Education in Kenya. One such great example I saw of this was at a showcase event with MercyCorp’s FinAgri team who supported the growth of 3 partners, Ensibuuko, FitUganda and Beyonic into more reliable and scalable businesses, rather than developing their own FinAgri app product and crushing local initiatives in the process.
10. Lack of localized content: There is still a huge need and gap for localized content to really make apps have an impact, including apps in local languages, local visual media, cultural relevancy etc. In Uganda, it sometimes seems that I drive down 50km the road and the local language changes. The internet tells me there are more than 40 languages spoken here. Yet, I often run into English-only apps. Some for rural farmers, some for community-based accountability reporting, others focused on maternal health.
Then again, this is my personal opinion! I’d love to hear more from readers on how I could be totally wrong!