Mobinomics: Mxit and Africa's Mobile Revolution by Alan Knott-Craig
YOU have probably heard of Mxit (pronounced mix-it,) but you are not alone if you are not quite sure what it is.
In brief, it is a chat program that enables subscribers to send and receive messages at a tiny percentage of the cost of an SMS. The facility has over 10 million active users, and it has an international user base.
In a country where the cellphone is more ubiquitous than landlines or any other communications medium, the potential is huge. For a few cents people can connect with a friend or join groups of like-minded people (predominantly the under-30s) in chat rooms.
This gives people with no access to computers and little money to spend on luxuries the pleasure of social connection. It is hardly surprising that Mxit is Africa's largest social network.
Mxit has a language of its own necessitated by the size of the device and the configuration of the keyboard. There are the obvious Mxit words such as CU (see you) and OIC (Oh, I see,) but also the more esoteric NVM (never mind,) and the English spelling-destroying NRG (energy.)
There are also rules to be observed to protect users from possible abuse and monitoring processes and people to ensure they are enforced.
The book describes the genesis of the firm Mxit lifestyle with a narrative hardly uncommon in the world of technology and telecoms startups.
There is the inevitable lack of funding, the energy of the founders, their technological smarts, their persistence in the face of overwhelming odds, the wrong turns, and the commitment to doing something important.
The connectivity now in place has facilitated the rise of valuable social applications such as education and personal and emotional support.
There is Dr Math, an avatar of a number of helpful people who are available to assist learners with maths problems. Some 30 000 learners have already registered for this free service at primary and high schools around South Africa.
Dr Math is a corps of University of Pretoria undergraduate students in the engineering faculty who have volunteered to be maths assistants as part of their community service obligations.
They all assume the persona of the friendly, wise and helpful doctor and simultaneously speak Mxit, decipher the learner's query and respond in a simple and clear manner.
Sensitive to the possibility of crossing the boundaries between tutor and learner, anonymity is strictly enforced. Tutors are only identified as Dr Math and cannot give out ASLR details (age, sex, location, and race,) a standard conversation gambit on Mxit.
The extensions of this facility to assist education in South Africa are enormous. Already a "new school version" of books is appearing on the network.
The first author of an IM book downloadable on Mxit, Karen Michelle Brooks, has sold over 100 000 chapters of her book, indicating not only that there is demand for age appropriate good reads, but also that some money can be made for one's efforts.
With cellphone penetration reaching 95% in even the poorest communities, the potential is huge and who knows, it might even encourage the reading of "old school" versions of books.
The Reconstructed Living Laboratory, or RLabs, provides a platform for counselling people in crisis among its other services. Using Mxit, the only connection tool many of the callers could afford to use, people in trouble can ask for help anonymously.
Mxit message: "my cuz is gng thru a problem n luking 4 a place to help him"
Counsellor: What is his problem?
Mxit message: "his on drugs for 4 years already his also been in out of prison for a while at 1st it was just tik but nw its worst"
Counsellor: How old is he?
Mxit message: "im nt sure bt I think hs 26"
Most of the advisers at RLabs are recovering addicts, trained by Lifeline in basic counselling techniques. Without Mxit such inquiries would never be made and the assistance never provided.
However, beyond all the social benefits described in the book lies the primary use of Mxit, the pleasure of being able to communicate cheaply and effectively with friends and family.
The book is a light introduction to social networking in South Africa, to a South African entrepreneur and to a South African company.
The setting is Stellenbosch where the company is headquartered, and the Western Cape features prominently. The familiarity of the context, setting and people is not a small part of the book's appeal.
Readability: Light +---- Serious
Insights: High ---+- Low
Practical High ----+ Low
* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy.