With a high appetite for smart phones in Ethiopia, developers of mobile phone applications seem poised to reap the rewards, but it is not as simple as all that Fortune Staff Writers SNETSEHAY ASSEFA and BEREKET GETANEH report.
Kebede Semu, 38, manager of a private company and satisfied owner of an iPhone 5 for the past two years, regularly uses the calendar, entertainment and game applications on his phone. Of increasing importance are local (Ethiopian) applications, such as Ethio Type, Amharic Bible, EtCal and Amh Keyboard, which he uses often.
In the past few years, the demand for smart phones in Ethiopia has increased; likewise, the demand for applications, which can be delivered through smart phones and other devices to provide local information and services. Dawit Adane, owner of Dave Mobile Service Center, who was in the mobile business for 12 years, said the coming of smart phones and the expansion of internet access has increased the demand for mobile applications, one of the most popular being the Amharic keyboard. Applications can be installed by customers for between 50 and 100 Br, depending on the number of applications installed, said Dawit.
Mobile applications are applications developed for small handheld devices, such as mobile phones, smart phones, PDA (Personal Digital Assistance) and so on. There are two categories of mobile applications, web-based and native applications. Web-based application can be accessed using the internet, while native applications is a program that has been developed for use on a particular platform or device while offline, stated Zelalem Fantahun, administrator of e-learning in Adama University.
Nebyou Yirga is one of the earliest mobile application developers. In 2009 he designed the first Amharic text keyboard for Nokia phones. He said that at the time there was no widespread usage of internet for people to download the application, so the application used to be disseminated via Bluetooth. But nowadays, there are different application stores, where developers can upload their products to make them available to their customers, such as Google Play, Get Jar and Palm Play, according to Nebyou. He recently developed football applications for the World Cup and the African Cup, which had an overall download of 350.
For an application developer to sell or to make his products available for customers for free on Google Play he needs to pay 25 dollars to subscribes. This has made it a little difficult since the developer cannot make the payment from Ethiopia. But Nebyou makes the payment through relatives who live abroad. Developers must pay 99 dollars every year for access and the right to publish in Apple’s application store. Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS (iPhone operating system) are operating systems used primarily in mobile technology, such as smart phones and tablets. Android, which is an “open” platform, means that anyone can download the source code for free. Android is more like a personal computer than iOS in that its interface and basic features are generally more customisable.
Android, developed by Google, is an operating system programmed using C, C++ and Java. Users are free to download applications from outside the official Google Play store. iOS, the operating system developed by Apple Inc. is programmed using Objective-C.
“If you want to buy an application in Ethiopia there is an SMS system through which customers pay from their mobile account balances”, stated Nebyou. An application can cost four to five Birr. This revenue does not go straight to the developers pocket, instead ethio telcom will take 40pc of the income and the remaining 60pc will be divided between the SMS company and the developer on negotiation.
Application developers who make products available for free can also benefit highly from recognition and fame gained by showcasing their products, said Nebyou. This, in return, gives the developer the leverage to demand payment for software upgrades, continues Nebyou.
There are many talented mobile application developers in the country, but what they lack is a good business model and promotion mechanism, explains the pioneer.
With an ambition to fill this gap in the market, companies like ICE Addis are established to help new entrepreneurs join together and be effective in the market. ICE Addis was founded in May 2011 and has been funded by different organisations at different times. Most students or new entrants to the industry have the skill of programming the products, but have no clue how to make them marketable, as well as to reach potential companies, noted Markos Lemma, co-founder of ICE Addis. His company helps the entrants to adopt their products to be suitable to the market, gives training on market strategies, mentoring and creating a business connection for them, stated Markos.
ICE Addis currently has nine start-up projects to adopt for the market, including mekina.net. The overall program has reached to 5000 members since its establishment.
The cost of developing an application is very insignificant, not forgetting the developers’ time and skill that will be invested on the job, according to Zelalem. He said building a mobile application could take two to three months, depending on the variety of functions the application is designed to execute. The application can be sold for 15,000 to 50,000 birr for clients. Currently he is working on mobile applications related to teenagers with an NGO that works on family and health planning.
Addis Abeba University, Institute of Science and Technology (AAiT) is working to upgrade mobile applications, which can give local service to the public under the centre of Information Technology and Scientific Computing (ITSC), responsible for Department of Research and Technology Transfer.
The university now gives Information Technology (IT) and software engineering at an undergraduate level and Artificial Intelligence to a postgraduate level. It also plans to open a postgraduate program in mobile applications in January 2015, with the capacity to register 50-100 students. At the undergraduate level there is a mobile programming course, which includes J2ME (Microsoft Edition) for feature phones and Android for smart phones.
The centre developed 230 applications, from which 150 are localised and focus on local information services, like weather, entertainment, health and sports, which can be uploaded online, Yoseph Abate, AAiT, leader of ITSC and instructor told Fortune.
Mobile assembly factories like Tecno mobile, amongst the eight mobile assembly factories in Ethiopia, are also developing and customising applications that can give local services.
“We would like to make local applications and content available for Ethiopia’s consumers,” said Yilkal Abate Afmobi, software manager.
This will create a win-win opportunity for developers via better utilisation of the technology and infrastructure to the consumer by providing more useful applications and helping to fabricate more useful devices that can make the company more competitive and contribute to the development of the country.
Afmobi is Tecno’s sister company in charge of the software production department in the company. Afmobi develops different kinds of applications in Ethiopia and in other markets. Afmobi’s application store for smart phones is called Palmplay and can be found on all Tecno smart phones. It can also be downloaded on other android devices. It also has an application store for feature phones called T-Zone found on Tecno feature phones. There are many popular applications in the application store, for example application for buses information is one, according to Yilkal.
This year, the company had its second App Challenge competition for Ethiopia. More than 200 applications were submitted for the competition, from which 46 were selected as finalists and uploaded to our application store. 21 of those were selected for awards and recognition, Yilkal told Fortune.
Ephrem Tesfay, consultant and application developer at Afmobi, has developed around 15 mobile applications. Out of these 15, Gursha and Tibatibe, can be found on Google Play. Tibatibe is a game which has beautiful graphic design and a layout that is based on Ethiopian cultural themes. It has been downloaded over 10,000 times in just four months.
‘‘There are 250 Ethiopian applications on Google Play. Many are applications designed for companies,’’ Ephrem said.
Even if the demand for applications and the number of applications available has a big gap, the number of applications is increasing, stated Ephrem. Beside the quantity, we should also work on improving the quality of the products in terms of graphic design and layout of the product, emphasises Ephrem. Additionally, since the products are targeting Ethiopian users, it should present more cultural, language proximate and localised products, he added.
The Ministry of Communication & Information Technology (MCIT) is working in collaboration with concerned institutions, like Tecno Mobile. It gives an internship program for Information Technology (IT) students from universities. Currently, there are 12 students taking the internship. Location finder and 8181 SMS service are some of the applications that have been worked on by students.
There is ongoing research on mobile applications and systems as government attempts to identify possible sectors suited for mobile applications, in cooperation with MCIT and ITSC which has lasted for one year. Up to 11 applications are expected to launch soon, said Yoseph.
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