You can’t ignore the mobile web

I’ve had a bit of involvement in the use of cell phones in advocacy and communication campaigns, and for a long time I’ve believed that most organisations should be taking mobiles much more seriously than they already do.

But some recent meetings have again brought home to me in a powerful way.

At the recent Digital Citizens Indaba and Highway Africa Conference at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, I attended a session by Vincent Maher and Nic Haralambous, from Vodacom. As part of their workshop on Social Media in Everyday Life, Vincent Maher presented some eye-opening statistics on the extent to which people are using cell phones to access the Internet.

All across Africa, in almost every country, Internet usage via cell phone is growing like crazy — not by 10 or 20 percent, but by several hundred percent, year-on-year.For example, in the top 12 countries, the number of overall page views (on cell phones)  increased by 422% between April 2008 and April 2009. Over a similar period, the number of unique users increased by 169%.

It’s not just richer folks with contracts who are doing this. According to Maher, in South Africa, 90% of data users are on Prepaid. Most are young black men (aged 20-30), and about half are unemployed. 46% access the mobile Internet more than 5 times a day. For the vast majority of these people, their first contact with the Internet was through a mobile phone.

And don’t expect that people who access the Internet via cell phone are going to ‘graduate’ to using computers. Most of them primarily access the Internet through their phone, and use social networks ONLY on their phone — for example, Facebook, Vodacom’s service, The Grid, and of course, MXIT.

According to Maher, after being around for about a year, The Grid has 860 000 users in South Africa — that means it’s fast catching up to Facebook, with nearly 1-million users in South Africa.

But when it comes to social media on phones, the big kid on the block is definitely MXIT. If you don’t know it, MXIT is a cellphone-based social network and chat application developed in South Africa. It has caught on like wildfire among South Africa’s youth. According to Maher, it has over 12-million users.

Which brings me to the second meeting that had me sitting up and taking notice. I visited the Impact Centre in Athlone, Cape Town, where Marlon Parker works with a team of people to provide drug counselling to the youth, using MXIT. Parker is a lecturer at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and does this in his spare time. Using a specially-developed computer application, the counsellors sit at their computers at the centre, and from there they’re able to counsel young people using text, via MXIT. Counselling hours are at a set time each day. Users can log in to MXIT using the relevant key words, and they’re able to stay anonymous. According to Parker, in this way their small team of counsellors is able to assist some 10 000 youngsters across Cape Town.

Not only are these numbers impressive, but new social media such as MXIT offer something else — interactivity. With a few exceptions, expensive behaviour-change campaigns in traditional media such as newspapers, radio and TV have generally failed miserably in telling people what they should be doing. But the new media are starting to show results, because they allow a whole different kind of communication and relationship between the participants. Parker’s small team of volunteers has been able to show impressive results, on a shoestring budget — they don’t get any funding at all. What’s more, because they’re on MXIT a lot and are constantly chatting to the youth, the counselling team is aware of new trends and developments on the street, long before they’ve come to the attention of the mainstream media – and even of parents and teachers.


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