Africa’s mobile opportunity, a look at Mobile Web Africa 2011

Today we had a chance to connect with Matthew Dawes, the Managing Director of All Amber. Specifically we wanted to talk about the mobile opportunity in Africa and get an insight into the up and coming Mobile Web Africa conference.

– How do you describe the African mobile opportunity?
I think mobile is having, and will increasingly have, more of an effect on societal development in Africa (and the other emerging markets) than in the ‘emerged’ markets – simply because of the lack of other infrastructure and the prevalence of other types of technology – so in a word ‘massive’.

– What are the biggest challenges facing the sector?
The obvious ones are policy, regulation, consumer spending implications and the lack of competition between network operators. Although having said that, I think regardless of the challenges if someone has a fantastic idea then I don’t see these elements getting in the way of success.

What it might well require is investors to adapt a different mindset in terms of investment. It’s probably more of a case of backing a lot of ideas in a small way as opposed to just looking for the one big opportunity to make a return. In the end there’s a wave of entrepreneurs across the different countries on the continent looking to deliver services and content – some of them are going to succeed and some are going to fail. I get the feeling that the momentum is too powerful for challenges to stop them.

– Where do you see the greatest opportunities?
Simplicity. If you look at the big successes they’ve tackled basic issues – M-Pesa, the need to move small amounts of money about, MXit, the need to communicate easily and at the lowest possible cost, Ushahidi, the need to gather information at a critical period. Services and content that deliver simple solutions that improve life, whether on a large or small scale.

Entertainment is a great area to look at – it’s what consumers like to do on their handsets. Vouchers or any services that take physical money out of the equation as well – I think that vouchers that incentivise people to do something for a good reason are brilliant.

Geographically I’d say Nigeria is the land of opportunity – what is it? The 7th biggest mobile market globally. When I mention Nigeria to people in the UK, where I’m based, their first thought is scam emails – I’d encourage anyone to go to Nigeria, meet the stakeholders, get a feel for the sector and then say there isn’t a real buzz for the future. I ran an event there last February and the place is alive.

– Can you share with us some exciting success stories?
This might sound like a bit of a cop out – but I think the vast majority are all in the making. NollywoodLove is a great idea, but is yet to reach its full potential, Umuntu Media could change the media landscape across the continent, Pulse is a great education service, Powertime is a great application in South Africa, Motribe is brilliant and Bozza just awe-inspiring. At each of our events we have an application competition and the entries are so varied and well-constructed – who’s to say which will actually succeed.

– Why are these success stories so unique?
Each of them are unique because they’re not copycats, they’re all bringing something new to the table. They haven’t copied or adapted an idea, at one point they must have drawn inspiration but they have the right degree of uniqueness.

– Where do you see the space progressing next?
With the introduction of cheap smartphones I think the space will progress down the society pyramid. Personally I think revolution is a really overused phrase, the space will slowly evolve into all the different areas of everyday life and behaviour.

– Why was Mobile Web in Africa started?
The spark behind me setting up All Amber and running the event was the refusal of my bosses to back it. I had the idea around the event forming for about three years before that, then got pushed into acting through a combination of negative factors coming together. I had been working on the policy and regulatory side for a couple of years and just got frustrated with the lack of traction – it was blatantly obvious that mobile was a game changer and so I decided to organise an event that focused purely on facilitating business and enabling sector growth.

On another level as well I love the fact that I’m not dictating or pushing ideas into Africa, just promoting areas for debates, best practice and expansion. Organising events allows me to create a high quality, interactive platform, make sure everyone is happy and engaged and then let them take what they want from the conferences.

– Why is this event unique?
I think when I first started the event in 2009 it was unique. Nothing similar had been organized that put such a focus on the sector. Since then, the event calendar has become more saturated, in South Africa in particular, but the event still stands out because of the topic, interactive format, quality of speakers and the ‘do some business’ environment we work hard to create.

The way I see events in general is that if people are investing their time and money to attend then you need to deliver value for money and decent returns. The very least a conference can provide is good information exchange. On top of that, creating an atmosphere where people can actually do business by interacting gives the attendee the justification to themselves and to their boss to attend.

Conferences are relatively simple to put together – high quality, professional conferences that enable and facilitate growth are a whole different ball game.

– How do you see VC4A and what role can we play as a network?
Think you’ve answered your own question there. VC4Africa is a network and connecting and reaching out to people is absolutely crucial in business. Developing understanding through experience and providing advice, avenues and access to expertise is key as well. Promoting the diversity that exists across the countries of Africa is important.

– Do you have a final message for the VC4A community?
If they have got this far, probably “thank you very much for your time and I hope to see you soon at one of my events”, otherwise it’d probably be a series of clichés “The darkest hour is the hour before dawn”, “it’s important to sort the wheat from the chaff” “Rome wasn’t built in a day” “Try to be proactive not reactive” that sort of thing…