Mobile Working

Global Mobile: Joburg Thieves Steal Fish Instead of Phone

Kathryn Cave catches up with Dr KF Lai, CEO of BuzzCity to discuss mobile usage around the world, the growth of the ‘UnderBanked,’ and how, from the western perspective, advertising strategy might be going ‘backwards’.

The back bar room in Boisdale of Belgravia has red walls, a maroon patterned rug over bare wood floorboards and a series of scarlet three-blade fans suspended from the low ceiling. The enclosed space reverberates with posh, ex-Public School accents and at the next-door table one old boy has his left leg raised on a stool and taps his foot rhythmically as he bellows forth about his “wound”.

“You couldn't miss me,” said Dr KF Lai, CEO of BuzzCity extending his hand and laughing, “I am the only Asian man in here.”

BuzzCity is a global advertising network headquartered in Singapore. It has three offices in South East Asia (Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia), one in India, one in South Africa, one in Paris and a newly opened space in London – near Victoria. It began in 1999 as a dot com business, moved into mobile advertising in 2007 and now, in what many western organisations might view as a bizarrely ‘backwards’ move, is stepping into the desktop arena.

This is a concerted bid to target the new trend for ‘multi-string’ behaviour where people access content on a variety of different devices. In striving to provide one service to target all audience needs it is making a savvy step towards providing the next generation of global consumers with exactly what they want. Dr KF Lai describes BuzzCity as a “network that ties together” an “ecosystem of advertisers, publishers and audience.” And like most of today’s businesses he is finding that large volumes of western publishers and advertisers are looking to tap into the huge audiences in emerging regions. “[We have] a very emerging market centric strategy.”

Mobiles are the first and sometimes only medium in emerging markets. It is a widely recognised fact that many services are going directly to mobile whilst skipping other platforms… and the truth is nearly everyone now has a mobile phone. “Recently [when] I was in South Africa I [had] bought a very cheap feature phone,” Dr KF Lai tells me. “I wanted to make a few calls.”

”I was in a food court in Johannesburg and I had bought some fish [when] I realised they didn't give me any cutlery. So I left my fish and my phone for a second and ran over to get my cutlery. I came back and my fish was gone. But my phone was there.  They didn't want my phone because they had better phones.”

Fish stealing thieves who reject mobile phones may fly in the face of many people’s perceptions of the African continent (even South Africa), yet it perfectly highlights how mobility is gradually settling into all aspects of people’s lives. This is a trend that is escalating across the globe. The Times of India recently reported that in 2013 India has seen an 89% increase in smartphone users from 2012. And on top of reading apps, getting train times (something which is hugely popular in India especially), and various forms of social media, the space where mobility is really taking hold is banking.

This has been seen in numerous banking initiatives across India;  Kenya is world renowned for its mobile-payment-service, M-Pesa; and new BuzzCity research places a real emphasis on the growing population of what it calls: the “UnderBanked”.  Findings, based on the mobile banking and payment attitudes of 17,000 consumers across 22 countries, show that 30% of working adults surveyed fit into this group. “These have some kind of banking relationship,” Dr KF Lai explains. “But don't exploit the full services. Maybe they don't have access to a physical bank or an ATM but having a smartphone or a feature phone allows them to do simple banking transactions.” The results reveal that a higher proportion of this group (19%) are now using their phone to pay bills than those with traditional bank accounts (13%).

Once again, this is a truly emerging markets perspective. In the US and Europe many consumers can be described as “OverBanked” - they probably had a bank account opened for them when they were under ten-years-old. They possibly pay for services they don’t need without realising it and will, as standard, pay for goods and services by a plastic card of some description. For this group it is almost odd to carry cash. Yet the “UnderBanked” are very much new to banking: 21% don’t feel they need a bank account, 43% don’t think they have enough money to open one and the vast majority still pay with cash.

The greatest value for this emerging group is that they can get their salary directly on their mobile phone and pay their bills using it. This means they can complete all the really necessary transactions from the one device they have. Most interestingly, this reliance on mobile networks throughout emerging regions is being investigated by a variety of different organisations – not only banks. I spoke to Gour Lentell co-founder of BiNu recently who talked extensively about the potential in the sheer volume of “guys standing on street corners selling scratch cards for air time”. He believes this creates a vast “underground payment network” which is waiting to be tapped into by the mobile providers and their partners.

Like most other mobile and technological trends however, the different ways people interact with new services is fundamentally integrated with the culture on the ground. Dr KF Lai explains how the social networking apps appear in a “different flavours” around the world. “In South East Asia,” he says “especially those with a Chinese influence [like] Malaysia and Thailand, the cute things get more following.” Line for example is a Japanese product that is similar to WhatsApp but it is based on stickers and emoticons. This works very well in Chinese and Japanese cultures yet it doesn’t work at all in India.  “The cute thing just doesn’t work there”. In India however, Chinese communication services WeChat has “shed all its Chineseness to look like an Indian product” and is now acting as a serious contender for WhatsApp.

As mobile phones become increasingly entrenched in people’s lives the way they are being used is rapidly evolving. This is impacting the way people are communicating, the way they’re spending money and the way they’re interacting with information. The only thing that isn’t changing is all odd cultural ticks people bring along with them…


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect


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