Bulk Short Message Service Business Thrives

It is quite usual for Biniam Afework, a 24 year old recent graduate of electrical and software engineering, to receive a Short Message Service (SMS) on his mobile phone frequently.

He cannot even remember a day that he did not receive random text messages informing him of something, announcing meetings, advertising goods and services, alerting him about upcoming events, congratulating national achievements and wishing a happy holiday and much more.

Biniam wonders why the service provider, Ethio telecom, keeps sending him piles of text messages without his consent, reflecting the opinion of quite many Addis Abebans.

Though there is a system where he can stop incoming messages, he says it could not help him much and he continued to be irritated by it.

What it seems many people may not understand or do not realize before they get easily offended is that SMS has become an integral part of life and is becoming a huge commercial industry.

Despite the fact that SMS based businesses are increasingly challenged by the Internet protocol-based messaging services like WhatsApp, Viber, Facebook Messenger, WeChat and other social networking apps, it seems rapidly growing in the country.

Flourishing six years ago, SMS service is increasingly joining to serve the market and social roles by inviting phone subscribers to receive text messages.

Romantic advice, promoting sales, announcing vacancies, and asking for humanitarian assistance are among services provided by the SMS service business. The business, however, is limited to the mobile-to-mobile exchange of text messages.

As elsewhere, there are also technological enterprises in Ethiopia behind these services.

Established a year ago, ITEX Technology Consulting Plc is one of the companies behind quite a few text messages reaching many phone numbers in a day.

If anyone wonders who sends the texts advocating beauty and wellness tips, fun facts and romance that are coming into their inboxes, ITEX would be one of the companies that come to the forefront.

Currently, there are 110 organisations, both from the public and private sectors, owning short codes that use them to send out SMSs.

Out of these, 49 are solely engaged in SMS business services, and the remaining organisations use the SMS business to facilitate their other missions and activities.

It might appear that with such a number of SMS service providers, the number of times that people need to check their mobile phones for incoming message alerts could be irritating as it is to Biniam.

However, there are also many people who enjoy the text messages and even gain a benefit from them, which is the encouraging part of the business.

The Macedonians Humanitarian Association (MHA), which receives the largest number of text messages a day, amounting to 150,000, is one of the beneficiaries from this business. While receiving bulk messages, it in return benefits lottery prize winners sending messages to the Association.

“On days with the biggest prizes like Saturdays, we receive up to 150,000 texts a day,” says Raji Dinsa, project coordinator at MHA. “The number of people who send a text to Macedonia might reach 60,000 on regular days.”

Ever since launching the services in March 2017, MHA has transferred five vehicles to prize winners through the National Lottery Administration (NLA), according to Raji.

It is not only prize winners, but also people like Eyerusalem Getachew who get a benefit from such businesses. Ever since she graduated in computer science from Gondar University, Eyerusalem has been looking for a job. In most stances, SMS service providers have been her guides.

“I have never actually gone out to look at vacancies in newspapers. All I had to do was follow the texts that I get on my phone and apply for jobs,” said Eyerusalem, who has won her recent job position with information she received via a Mjobs SMS.

Launched by SOMETEC five years ago, Mjobs provides job vacancy services posted on its website. The service so far has more than 55,000 subscribers.

Although it is one of the largest numbers for SMS subscription, it does not earn enough profit compared to other SMS providers with half the number of subscribers, according to Melaku Woldemichael, founder and general manager of SOMETEC.

Even though Melaku does not seem to be completely happy about the amount he earns from the job vacancy SMS business, job seekers like Eyerusalem have news of gratitude for him.

SMS based companies such as Melaku’s are expected to share 40pc of their revenue to the state monopoly Ethio telecom, which is the service provider in this case.

They also have to be granted a license from the Ministry of Communications & Information Technology (MCIT) to enter into the business. Obviously, the services also have to go through the sole Internet and mobile data application provider, Ethio telecom, before reaching subscribers.

Exceptions to the rule are those engaged in the humanitarian and charity missions and state initiated text messages. Ethio telecom does not share their revenues.

Companies engaged in lottery-based SMS service provision are required by Ethio telecom to present a valid license from the National Lottery Administration. And those who give services related to news should show a permit from the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority.

Besides the technical requirements needed to secure a license, the service contents that are intended to be displayed in the texts are also taken into consideration.

Messages that promote hate, violence, or discrimination are not permitted or have to be censored. If such contents are displayed in the text messages, business licenses will be revoked, according to Abdurahim Ahmed, a corporate communication officer at Ethio telecom.

Alazar Ahmed, a marketing and promotion expert, who has observed the global trend of the SMS business, says the booming business of SMS services in Ethiopia is a result of an absence of alternative online and social networking technologies.

“Had there been alternatives like that of online shopping, there would not be such an obsession with SMSs,” he explains.

As it has already become one of the major ways of mobilizing money for different purposes and an easy way of transacting, the SMS business continues to be a recognized and regulated business of the economy.

For now, business will carry on as usual, even if some like Biniam are frustrated with the bulk messages they receive. In contrast, Eyerusalem and her peers enjoy the service as they get the best out of it.






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