semeni - Kenya's nifty group SMS service repackaged

Aside from the unending debate of the M-PESA success in Kenya, it is interesting to note that there are other SMS based services that have been maturing into being equally innovative and relevant to the peculiar people of Kenya. I have been thinking through semeni; the group SMS service developed by  mobile planet and perhaps in conjunction with 'our Safaricom'. My chama (investment group) has used the service for at least two years now and I think it is a very convenient and practical service. Readers comments on my previous post on M-PESA ownership pointed at convenience to the populace being the significant factor for M-PESA's success. I should say then that if convenience were the only factor for the phenomenal success, then semeni (or 184 as known within my chama) should be equally successful in a few more months or years from now.

The service allows users to broadcast an SMS text to multiple selected friends, family members, co-workers and so on within the Safaricom network for only 10/- per broadcast. The same should be possible as standard features of some mobile phone handsets which an individual can set up on their own phone. Semeni takes the otherwise basic feature further by making it platform (handset) indipendent to begin with - embracing the now hype cloud computing concept. The service then goes ahead to offer individuals a relatively simple and common interface to create, modify and delete groups. Administrative features include inviting new members and 'transferring leadership'. For individual members, features include creating their nick names specific to each group they belong to, going offline - to stop receiving group messages temporarily, and voluntarily leaving a group.  The service goes ahead to act as an archive of messages sent through the group - a cool feature for those of us who are perpetually pruning the inbox of our low capacity handsets.

What makes this service a little more ready for the masses as 2009 comes to a close is the added combination of both an SMS and a web based user interface. The group and individual membership management features are accessible through either the SMS or the Web based mode. The repackaged service also scales up to allow individual membership of more than one group by adding a extra digit after the 184 code. The new groups are coded 184X  (where X is 1-9,0) to uniquely identify a maximum of 10 groups that an individual can theoritically belong to. As such I could have the number 1841 assigned to my estate 'jirani mwema' group, 1842 to my Bible study group, 1843 to my chama, 1844 to my sibblings and so on.

Perhaps it is not the basic feature of broadcasting SMS texts to selected groups of friends and family members at reduced costs that makes semeni a ground breaking service for Kenyans. It is rather the potential that such a service carries of competing at the same level as facebook, twitter and other social network services heavily used in Kenya. As a social media platform, semeni has this unique advantage of starting from the trusted, established  and known social networks inherent in the existing social patterns of Kenyans. It will definitely not surprise many to have semeni offer more social media-like services on its web based interface. The service' apparent approach of offerring a simple and deliberately reduced feature set might be a plus if the phenomenal growth of twitter with its reduced feature set is to go by.

On the downside the service currently appears to be one more item in Safaricom's arsenal to indefinitely lock its 14 million plus subscribers within its arguably expensive network. The service also has yet to allow its users to send messages for free or at normal network rates from its web-based platform. Of greater concern is that the service seems not to be beneffitting much from Safaricom's phenomenal marketting bugdet as yet.

The semeni support center would be a good place to start for those who want to know more about how the service works.

M-PESA is not a Kenyan Innovation

Many Kenyans still believe that 'their' Safaricom owns the patents to the M-PESA innovation. Some Kenyans even claim that Safaricom hijacked their idea and developed it into M-PESA - a court case was once reported on this. The reality being that the system  was 'developed' by Sagentia on behalf of Vodafone, it goes without saying that the corresponding intellectual property (IP) does not belong to Safaricom. That is also not to forget that Kenya has enough software development capacity to build such a system on a robust platform.

Safaricom is paying patent fees to Vodafone just like any other network operator who will wish to use the money transfer platform. It might help for Michael Joseph to clarify if any benefits accrue to himself or others in Safaricom specifically for accepting to be the test platform for "Vodafone's innovation". Such a clarification should of course address the opportunity cost of a more direct contribution to Kenya's knowledge economy through the apparently foregone IP ownership.

I would like to suggest that if for any other reason M-PESA does not succeed in other markets outside Kenya, it will be because the M-PESA is merely a Kenyan innovation, whose success is a direct derivative of  Kenya's patriotism. As such the innovation's success may not be replicated where the corresponding patriotic emotion is inexistent.

Consider the patriotism displayed in the oversubscription of the Safaricom IPO of 2008. Consider the fanatical self imposed network (Safaricom) lock-in of over 14 million Kenyans. Then you might start understanding the success of M-PESA in Kenya. Many Kenyans found M-PESA compelling merely because it was supposed to be a 'Kenyan Invention'. Indeed the M-PESA success story may not be complete without mentioning the sense of belonging and patriotism of Kenyans as an aftermath of 2007/8 election crisis.

Had the 5+ Millions of M-PESA users initially learnt some of the facts in Olga Morawczynski's
article - What you don't know about M-PESA, the service might as well have been struggling as is the case with the Vodacom's attempt in Tanzania. Consider the question - why are ZAP and YuCash - alternatives to MPESA not yet success stories? In my opinion, the technological platform could have been developed by anyone else - including our own software developers. The business processes addressing the socio-economic context could only have come from the Kenyan populace - regardless of who eventually incorporated them into the software.    

I am sure at some point in history, the social scientists will have something to say about the role of Kenya's social-political crisis of 2007 and 2008 in the M-PESA success story.

So how do I know an IT practitioner in Kenya

The other day Dr. Bitange Ndemo - who I really respect announced that ICDL training will be used as some kind of benchmark for determining whether one is computer literate. That seems to me a very useful move for the ICT industry. It definitely very useful for the Kenya chapter of ICDL. Skeptics will say Dr. Ndemo was 'enticed' to make the public pronouncement. Let us now watch to see how the growing computer training industry responds to the implied endorsement - no more questionable computer training certificates? Whatever the case, the trend should make life easier for those IT practitioners in the area of IT service support. It should be easier to tell a fellow employee to read their ICDL notes when they ask for support to prepare some powerpoint presentation.

The next thing Dr. Ndemo should scout for is the benchmark for one to be safely called an IT expert. Some of the ladies and gentlement we call IT practitioners have the perhaps outdated IMIS diploma, ACE etc. Others have MCSE, MCP, CCNA, Oracle Administrators which may not have been renewed since the first vendor curiculum was published. Then there is the educated lot who undertook went through a formal degree such as BSC Computer Science, BBIT, BSC in IT, BSC in Software Engineering and others. Others did BSC in electronic engineering, BSC in Maths and seem to have a claim to the title 'IT expert'.

It seems difficult to establish who really is the expert in Kenya. Perhaps they all are. Perhaps Dr. Ndemo should make a pronouncement. Perhaps they should all subscribe to a body that would vet them by some standards. The question of what the Computer Society of Kenya (CSK) means to this debate seems difficult - especially when my colleague says CSK is only a one man show.

This IT profession surely feels like an interesting one. Consider the question of which of the above qualifications earns the right to scale up the corporate ICT ladder. Lastly, should the head of the IT function be the IT manager, ICT managemer, IS manager, Data Manager or should they carry the more glamorous Chief Information Officer title?  Now we need an IT consultant to determine the meaning of these titles in our esteemed organisations.