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VR gets real across Africa

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Virtual Reality became mainstream in several African countries including Nigeria last year. RUSSELL SOUTHWOOD spoke to the founder of Nigerian based Imisi 3D, JUDITH OKONKWO, about what she’s doing and the prospects for this technology.

Virtual Reality (VR) as a technology seemed to arrive last year in several different African countries, including Nigeria and South Africa. The innovators who are working on it believe that because the field is currently wide open, there’s the opportunity to get in at the front of the queue this time around. Russell Southwood spoke to the founder of Imisi 3D, Judith Okonkwo about what she’s doing and the prospects for this technology.

Imisi 3D’s founder Judith Okonkwo came back to Lagos from the UK in 2014:”I was energized by the entrepreneurship scene and tech start-ups. I worked for Andela where I saw a lot of talented young people on its programme perform really well over 4-6 months. I thought there was a lot of potential.”

“VR was coming down in price. The Oculus Rift ands Google Cardboard changed the game. it was suddenly wide open to get into, particularly here in Nigeria. We had an opportunity to define how the tech was going to be used.”

She started in July 2016 with her first event, working with Lagos Hub and ccHub to create a showcase based on 50 people. She involved a VR consultant on Skype to provide advice and mentoring on the use of the 360 degree cameras:”One thing we committed to do was to build a community of content creators in Nigeria.”

“The resources (to create VR) are expensive but we bridge that gap with things like equipment and books and so on. The CEO of ccHub was a mentor and was very enthusiastic. He said ‘You need to attract people to Yaba to see what’s going on with the technology’. We had 100 people through the doors in the first week.  We want to create a community of people building VR content. We want to become known at being good at creating VR solutions in Nigeria.”

It held its first VR hackathon in Nigeria in November 2016 looking at areas like healthcare, education and tourism. The winners combined use of Samsung’s Gear VR with Leap Motion, which allowed hand motions and gestures for control.:”It was about using these (programmes) to teach people how to code and getting Gear and Leap Motion to work together.”

One of the runners up produced a gamified version of conception where the player acted like the sperm:”It was very exciting and addictive and the team intends to add a lot more content to it.” Another team created an app called Go There that allows the user to virtually visit Nigerian tourist destinations and then be able to go on and book a holiday.

So how well developed is VR in Nigeria?:”You come across people who’ve bought Google Cardboard and Gear VR. At an event in September last year I noticed a young man playing with his phone and a VR app. He didn’t have a VR headset. I tapped him on the shoulder and said come down to Yaba. I’ve even seen people attempt to make Google Cardboard themselves.”

“But VR is quite limited here. What they can do and local content available is limited but that will change. There are VR cockpit chairs in malls in Lagos that are probably Oculus-driven. The people we’re attracting are interested in creating local content. In terms of equipment, it depends on what you want. Samsung Gear VR, sometimes yes, sometimes no. Generic VR headsets, you can buy on Jumia and Konga….In terms of makers, there are the teams who won the hackathon, another guy who does VR for architecture and real estate and film-makers looking at 360 film-making.”

This initial initiative is now leading on to other activities. It now has a VR for Schools project for education at the bottom of the pyramid, involving local schools:”We’re turning assumptions (about what can be done) on their head… I’m quite passionate about VR for education. We’re running a pilot with content that exists but it would be better with locally created content”.

“We need to build up the skills for worlds class VR content. People are already asking me are there VR developers here. We’re planning to support the teams that took part in the hackathon to put their apps up on the Oculus store. The market is in its infancy but it’s ready to grow. We’re looking for R & D opportunities. It’s not enough just to explore what was happening last year. I want to look at the convergence between VR and Artificial Intelligence.”

So what’s the business model for what she’s been doing?:”It’s been a mix so far. We’ve bootstrapped with support from Facebook and equipment vendors and we’re exploring different models, primarily income from the services we provide. We think there opportunities for collaborating with people across the continent with specialist skills developing in different regions.’

* Russell Southwood is editor of Smart Monkey TV.  To subscribe to its web TV channel, visit http://www.youtube.com/user/SmartMonkeyTV/videos

Africa News

Africa phones go flat

Africa’s mobile phone market declined 2.1% quarter on quarter in Q3 2018 according to the latest figures from IDC.

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The global technology research and consulting firm newly released Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker shows overall shipments for the quarter totalled 52.6 million units, with feature phone shipments falling 2.7% QoQ and smartphone shipments declining 1.3% over the same period.

Transsion brands (Tecno, Infinix, and Itel) led the feature phone space in Q3 2018, with a combined unit share of 58.2%. Nokia was next in line with 11.7% share. Transsion, Samsung, and Huawei dominated the smartphone space with respective unit shares of 34.9%, 21.7%, and 10.2%. However, in value terms, Samsung led the smartphone market with 37.2% share, followed by Transsion (21.0%) and Huawei (13.0%).

There were differing fortunes in the region’s three major markets, with Nigeria suffering a heavy 11.6% QoQ decline in mobile phone shipments, while South Africa and Kenya saw respective QoQ growth of 8.5% and 7.9% in Q3 2018.

“The decline in Nigeria stemmed from a slowdown in government spending, ongoing warfare in the country’s northern states, and market uncertainty in the lead up to elections,” says George Mbuthia, a research analyst at IDC. “In South Africa, the market’s growth was spurred by the penetration of low-end devices from brands such as Mobicel, Mint, and Nokia, while the launch of entry-level smartphones helped drive growth in Kenya despite increases in taxes and fuel prices placing a significant burden on disposable income in the country.”

While feature phones remain steadfastly popular across Africa, particularly in more rural areas, consumers are increasingly being attracted by smartphone offerings from Chinese brands such as Xiaomi, Oppo, and Huawei, which are actively targeting feature-oriented customers at more economical price points.

“There is a new wave of Chinese brands aggressively pursuing growth opportunities in the region, while the more-established Huawei is also accelerating its marketing efforts and expanding its distribution budget,” says Ramazan Yavuz, a research manager at IDC. “These brands have quickly progressed along the learning curve and evolved their offerings to perfectly reflect the realities of the region by addressing the diverse pricing and feature needs of the consumer base.”

Looking ahead, IDC expects Africa’s overall mobile phone market to reach 58 million units in Q4 2018, spurred by the festive season and online consumer events such as Black Friday. The introduction of more affordable smartphones in the African market will help drive progress in this space over the coming quarters, while the share of feature phones will decline steadily as the transition to smartphones gathers momentum.

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Africa News

Mobile money to cross borders

Orange and MTN launch pan-African mobile money interoperability to scale up mobile financial services across Africa.

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Two of Africa’s largest mobile operators and mobile money providers, Orange Group and MTN Group, today announced a joint venture, Mowali (mobile wallet interoperability), to enable interoperable payments across the continent. Mowali makes it possible to send money between mobile money accounts issued by any mobile money provider, in real time and at low cost.

Mowali will immediately benefit from the reach of MTN Mobile Money and Orange Money, bringing together over 100 million mobile money accounts and mobile money operations in 22 of sub-Saharan Africa’s 46 markets. Mowali is ready to enable interoperability between digital financial service providers beyond MTN and Orange operations and markets, to support the existing 338 million mobile money accounts in Africa.

Mowali is a digital payment infrastructure that connects financial service providers and customers in one inclusive network. It functions as an industry utility, open to any mobile money provider in Africa, including banks, money transfer operators and other financial service providers.

The objective of Mowali is to increase the usage of mobile money by consumers and merchants.  Mowali enables money to circulate freely between mobile money accounts from any operators in all countries.  From the customer’s point of view, this means “I can pay or receive money anywhere from my mobile account regardless of my operator”. The system will unlock further innovation in the digital financial space within the continent. 

For Stéphane Richard, Chairman & CEO of Orange, “by providing full interoperability between platforms, Mowali will provide an important step forward that will allow mobile money to become a universal means of payment in Africa. Increasing financial inclusion through the use of digital technology is an essential element in furthering the economic development of Africa, particularly for more isolated communities. This solution embodies Orange’s ambition to be a leading player in the digital transformation of the continent. By joining forces with another of Africa’s market leaders, MTN, we aim to accelerate the pace of this transformation in a way that will change the lives of our customers by providing them with simpler, safer and more advantageous services. “

“One of MTN’s goals is to accelerate the penetration of mobile financial services in Africa, Mowali is one such vehicle that will help us achieve that objective. Furthermore, co-operation and partnerships that help us accelerate the pace of development and overcome some of the scale, scope and complexity of challenges that society faces are key. This partnership with Orange is therefore an important step in helping us play a meaningful role in supporting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals related to eliminating extreme poverty and enhancing socio-economic development in the markets we operate in and beyond. Thus giving our customers access to a bright, digital future.” said Rob Shuter, Group President and CEO of MTN.

The GSMA supports the Mowali initiative as interoperability at this scale is a key accelerator for both financial inclusion and Mobile Money usability across Africa.  “Today, there are over 690 million mobile money accounts around the world. Mobile money services have become an essential, life-changing tool across Africa, providing access to safe and secure financial services but also to energy, health, education and employment opportunities. The creation of Mowali will help to further transform mobile financial services throughout the African region. It demonstrates the mobile industry’s continued leadership and commitment to driving financial inclusion and economic empowerment through industry collaboration. The GSMA is proud to support its development,” said Mats Granryd, Director General, GSMA.

“Interoperability of digital payments has been the toughest hurdle for the financial services industry to overcome, in support of financial inclusion. With Mowali, Orange and MTN deliver a solution that will enable them, and other companies, to scale digital financial services across Africa, faster, to everyone—including the poor,” said Kosta Peric, deputy director of Financial Services for the Poor, at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation “This is a signal that a new wave of innovation, which can help alleviate poverty and drive economic opportunity, is coming. We’re pleased to see an implementation of Mojaloop—an open source payment platform available to operators across the sector—help achieve that.”

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