Networking & Communications

Telecom APIs could increase African innovation

Application Program Interface (API) has become the standard way online services talk to each other. In Africa however, most companies have seen the use of APIs as a dangerous way into their systems and opted to stay away from them.

According to a recent report by the GSMA, The Mobile Economy: Africa 2016, the continent’s telecom companies, which have a greater and wider reach other than any service, could be the key in unlocking innovation across the country.

In Africa, telecom companies such as Safaricom and Tigo have ventured into other value added services such as mobile money transfer. Services such as these have largely been pushed by telecom companies, rather than the banking sector.

These payment services can be taken advantage of by start-ups that want to provide an easy and convenient payment system. Since credit card payments are still low on the continent, SMS billing and mobile money payments are a route companies can take to monetise their products.

The opportunities for such start-ups are rife since the number of mobile phone subscribers in Africa has surpassed the half billion mark. This has opened up a great avenue for developers to bring innovation into the hands of every African. However, this can only be achieved by companies opening up their APIs to the ecosystem.

“Mobile operators already play a central role in nurturing the development of innovative solutions in Africa,” the GSMA report said.

“They have traditionally supported various initiatives to identify and develop new talent and solutions, including incubators, accelerators and competitions, mostly through funding and mentorship.”

The report also highlighted the interest that mobile firms have had in the tech industry. MTN, Millicom and Orange have acquired equity stakes in Africa Internet Group, the organisation that owns ecommerce giants Jumia and Kyamu. This has been hailed as a way to get established corporations involved in building local innovative companies.


“Some mobile operators in the region have also opened up their APIs to third-party developers. This ushers in a new dimension of operator and start-up ecosystem engagement, and follows several years of learnings from API programmes launched by pioneering mobile operators, such as Telefónica (BlueVia programme), Deutsche Telekom (Developer Garden), AT&T (Developer Program) and the GSMA (OneAPI),” GSMA observed.

“For example, a start-up can offer SMS-based localised content to its users depending on their city or area, and then charge them by deducting the amount from their mobile airtime. Such a service would leverage three operator APIs simultaneously: SMS, location and direct operator billing,” the report said.

But implementing these services has not come without challenges. Safaricom, East Africa’s largest telecom company took a long time launch its API to developers and when it finally did launch, it didn’t best serve the ecosystem.

Kariuki Marima, a Kenyan web developer has been trying to integrate a B2C API system for mobile payments but reveals that Safaricom is only operating from old technology.

In his blog, Marima cites the bad documentation that Safaricom has produced to help the API integration. He also suggests that the company should implement REST API rather than, SOAP, which most developers consider ancient.

Marima’s post highlights the fact that in implementing APIs for developers, companies need to employ appropriate technology and even include local tech innovators to contribute to its architecture.

GSMA reported (pages 32 and 33) that the mobile ecosystem in Africa directly contributed US$38 billion in GDP and it is expected to grow with the rise of subscriptions and launch of other added value services. This progress is estimated to have employed over 1.3 million Africans directly and injected an additional 1.4 million indirect jobs up through to the end of 2015.

These numbers could be improved upon if start-ups are allowed to take advantage of the existing technology through APIs.

Kenya’s delivery start-up, Sendy is actively using APIs to connect motorbike riders to delivery jobs. The company that received investments from Safaricom and has integrated its USSD and mobile money APIs to enable the product to work seamlessly.

MLouma is a Senegalese start-up that connects buyers and sellers of agricultural products integrated Orange’s USSD API and billing API to facilitate ecommerce transactions.

Orange’s API has also been implemented by Ivory Coast’s Sycelim which dabbles in the insurance industry. The start-up uses SMS to enable doctor and patient to be updated during an insurance approval process.

Vodafone have also opened up its mobile money APIs in Ghana and Tanzania. MTN has opened its API doors to start-ups in Zambia’s BongoHive hub.

The GSMA implored more telecom companies to open up their APIs for further innovation across the continent. The organisation said:

“[Telecoms should] open and harmonise APIs, and collaborate with one another to enable innovators access to key platforms. Accelerate outreach efforts to educate and support the local developer community about operator APIs and engage with them more broadly.”

Since unhindered innovation can be carried out by start-ups, big telecom players should get involved in actively nurturing these companies and also open up tools that could help scale these budding ventures.


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Vincent Matinde

Vincent Matinde is an international IT Journalist highlighting African innovations in the technology scene.

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