Global mobile expert Tomi Ahonen: “The wise investor will look to African innovators”

Tomi Ahonen
“The wise investor will look to African innovators and inventors for truly mass-market capable mobile ideas”, says world-renowned mobile expert Tomi Ahonen. Ahonen will give the opening address at Mobile East Africa 2014 where VC4Africa members get a 20% discount. The event will start on Wednesday, February 12, in Nairobi, Kenya – and will include a full-day workshop on Friday, February 14th. Read the full interview with Tomi below.

Tomi Ahonen consults on mobile strategies to Fortune 500 companies around the globe, has written 12 bestselling books on mobile and digital communities, was ranked “the world’s most influential expert in mobile” by Forbes in 2012, and is considered by many to be the best speaker on mobile in the world. 

What can we look out for in your Mobile East Africa appearances?

“I will have many cool and clever mobile service examples at the conference, both in my keynote and many many more in my workshop. I will be prioritizing examples that are relevant to Africa and most that will work on very basic technologies, i.e. ‘feature phones’, not just ‘smartphones’.

Let me give an example. Most of the hot stories in mobile tend to come from various gimmicky smartphone apps or very premium phones like the bendable phones etcetera, but my favorite story right now comes from the country of Guatemala in Central America, and the concept can easily be deployed in any country in Africa. It’s a mobile marketing campaign with a very clever twist on gamification: a countdown clock discount, but one that hits your customers only when they visit a competitor’s store!

The company that did this is a local sporting shoe store chain called Meat Pack in Guateamala. They called the campaign the ‘Hijack’ campaign. It was created by the advertising agency 4AM Saatchi and Saatchi.

The store chain first geo-tagged all of their competitor’s stores, based on GPS location. Then the store invited its loyalty program members to sign up for mobile phone based offers. During the campaign customers inside a competitor store would receive an alert message on their phone that announced a countdown discount on all sporting shoes sold right at that moment in any store of Meat Pack, starting at 100%, a moment later 99%, then 98% etc. The customer was urged to rush to the nearest Meat Pack store and make his or her purchase at that store rather than stay inside the competitor store…

The campaign ran one week during which time 600 customers were hijacked from inside competitor stores to rather run to the nearest Meat Pack store. It’s the first time ever, as far as I have found, for any campaign on any media being able to target customers exactly when they are inside a competitor’s store.

Obviously all of this was achieved by monitoring the location of the customer’s mobile phone, and this was obviously all permission-based, opt-in marketing. I consider this a magnificent example of using the full power of mobile. Not to copy the existing media like television print and the internet but doing something that is truly unique to mobile. In this case that we carry our phones always, the phone is truly personal, the phone is always on and we can pinpoint its location.”

What kinds of developments in Africa excite you and what do you see as opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors?

“In general all over the planet we have a continuous upgrade of the technical abilities of the mobile industry. When I think about Africa specifically, we have three areas where Africa is particularly exciting. First is obvious to those anywhere near Kenya: mobile money. It’s not a contentious issue anymore in Kenya if some ‘expert’ suggests that all money will migrate to mobile money in the future. But the power of digitally connected and ‘smart’ money over traditional paper and coins is far beyond the mere speed and convenience of mobile money. We could hold a whole conference just on the recent clever developments in the mobile payments area and much of that innovation is coming from Africa.

The less obvious areas of African leadership come first from the least advanced handset population. It may seem like a hindrance that most consumers do not have Android or iPhone smarphones in Africa today, but actually the power of SMS text messaging for example is enormous. If an inventive creative technologist is given the power of computing that is a modern smartphone and its applications environment, it’s very tempting to create very advanced apps that actually have a tiny addressable global market. What is so compelling about African innovation in mobile is how much of it is on very basic technologies such as SMS, MMS, voice, WAP and ISSD.

These basic technologies allow the masses to use mobile, and it amazes me how often for example American major global consumer brands are ‘discovering’ the power of say SMS and MMS. African innovators know what their environment can sustain and will focus on that. The great news is that most of those concepts will work happily in the more industrialized countries too, and the wise investor will look to African innovators and inventors for truly mass-market capable mobile ideas…

The last part and the one that makes me most excited is Africa’s youth and their love and appreciation of mobile. I heard that some youth in Africa say ‘mobile is the privilege of our generation’. In the West the youth are spoiled for choice, playing with Xbox and surfing the Internet on tablets on 4G networks and watching HD television etcetera. In Africa the only digital technology that all youth have access to is mobile. They will know the full power of mobile far more thoroughly than their Western peers.

All of the tech giants agree that mobile is the future. So say the world’s largest home electronics company Sony, the world’s largest PC maker Hewlett-Packard, so say world’s largest laptop maker Lenovo, world’s largest Internet company Google, world’s largest software maker Microsoft, world’s largest tech company Samsung, world’s largest social network Facebook, and so says the worlds’ most profitable tech company Apple. So African youth are focusing on exactly where the tech future will be, not where it may have been in the past. This means this decade and the next will belong disproportionately to Africa where increasingly the global mobile innovation will come from.”

What spheres in mobile do you feel are most relevant for Africa at this moment?

“Education will probably have the biggest impact in the long run. It was only a few years ago that the very first measured impact of mobile learning was done, in South Africa where a test group of schools trialed mobile learning of mathematics – to astoundingly strong results. Since then many countries have replicated similar results and I think when we look at the otherwise great disparity between students of Africa versus the rest of the world, even to the point of schools, lots of villages not having electricity and books etcetera, when we introduce the power of mobile in learning, the long term gains will be a leapfrogging effect. I love all the frivolous stuff and the cool stuff of advertising etcetera, but the biggest impact will be if we get to 100% literacy and mobile is the best way so far to bridge the digital divide.”

What are mobile’s biggest disappointments so far? What are things mobile can’t do that people should realize?

(Laughing:) “Haha, I don’t think there is anything mobile cannot do…. I talk about the next big thing being the ability to read our minds, and that is already in the labs and will be on some future iPhone or Galaxy or Xperia probably in less than ten years. But the biggest bottleneck to mobile power is the battery development, which is not growing as fast as silicon is.

I mean that computing power is still growing at Moore’s Law, doubling in capacity every 18 months, but batteries are not growing capacity at that speed, so we have a continuous struggle to have the batteries keeping up with the potential of the device.”

What are your key suggestions to investors in Africa?

“If you have a successful start-up and it manages to make money for you then fund its rapid expansion abroad. Not just the neighboring African countries but the rest of the world as well! The richest man on the planet is no longer Bill Gates, it’s now a guy in Mexico called Carlos Slim. He built his wealth on mobile.”

What is your message to entrepreneurs in and outside the VC4Africa community who are working to build the next wave of promising companies in Africa?

“I like to quote one of my friends and a management guru Jonathan JMac MacDonald on this. He says ‘all businesses are social, all media is digital, and all digital is mobile’. If you are looking to invest, today in 2014 the best opportunities that are both mass market size, meaning large enough, and have a proven business model already are those three – social media, digital and mobile. Not just one of the three, but if you have all three, then you have the ingredients for success. Look at the long road
Facebook was on until it discovered big profits. Where were they? In mobile.

At Mobile East Africa I hope to learn more than my audiences will learn from me! Africa is such a vibrant and creative place, but most local entrepreneurs do not know how good they are as they have no international comparisons.

Expand abroad and do it fast is my core message. If you’ve discovered something that works, then take it to the world.”

Mobile East Africa 2014 is taking place at the Southern Sun Mayfair Nairobi, Kenya on February 12th through 14th.  The conference speaker faculty is composed of the very best local and international presenters from organisations including Jumia Kenya, iHub, Virtual City, Bongo Live, Ghafla!, Smile Tanzania, Bozza, Every1Mobile, FrontlineSMS, Praekelt, Sponge, KINU Innovation Hub and Zilojo.  Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Omidyar Network, MTech, and Google are just a few of the many companies sending representatives to the event. See the Mobile East Africa 2014 website for full details.

VC4Africa members are entitled to a 20% discount on attendance. Independent developers, startups and NGOs are entitled to a 50% discount – read more here.