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.