In a recent announcement Airtel Africa chief executive, Christian de Faria, asked governments across the continent to come up with regulations to control instant messaging apps like Whatsapp, Mxit and Viber that allow users to send information to each other at a cheaper cost.
These so called over-the-top (OTT) services have increased over the recent few years attracting the interest of global tech giants Facebook and Google.
While Faria’s complaint has enough data from telecom firms losing revenue through these OTTs backing it, official data from some countries show that mobile subscribers on the continent still prefer using text messages rather than these web supported applications.
In Kenya, one of the most tech-forward countries in Africa and the birthplace of mobile money, data from the telecoms regulator showed that the use of short-messaging-services (SMS) went up 9 percent in the last quarter of 2014, compared to a similar period in 2013.
According to Ernest Makotsi, the chief executive at a Nairobi-based research and survey company Wayo, “SMS and USSD will still be pretty huge in Africa for the next three to five years especially in the lower middle class and the low end market, which is a huge percentage of the population.”
What is keeping text messaging relevant in many African countries is the fact that many people, who mostly live in the rural areas, still use feature mobile phones that do not support instant messaging apps like Whatsapp.
In fact, most tech entrepreneurs on the continent build their services around SMS technology to be able to reach their target audience in the rural areas where internet is normally scarce.
One example of these services is iCow, a text-based mobile phone application that allows small scale dairy farmers in rural Kenya to access information on how to breed their cows and gives valuable tips on animal nutrition. Basically a virtual veterinary midwife.
Startup TotoHealth, a website that provided health information to pregnant women and parents with young kids, uses text messaging to reach its users.
SMS are also being heavily used by businesses such as commercial banks for transactional messaging.
“These people probably are not on social media and do not use email regularly. Brands still need to understand the needs at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ market and we see SMS and USSD as a channel for that customer or user to voice and connect to brands, social enterprises and development agencies working in these communities,” Makotsi said.
While text messaging is still big in Africa, its market share is slowly waning, something that is validating Airtel Africa’s concern over lost telecoms revenue.
“Yes, there has been a large reduction in usage of text as many businesses see OTT messaging as a more cost-effective replacement to SMS,” Trevor Kimenye of Ongair, a company that helps companies to speak and make offers to their customers through Whatsapp, told PC Advisor.