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If you’re in any doubt that Africa is a mobilefirst continent, just look around you. Everyone is using a handset. And why wouldn’t they? Nearly everything gets easier when you do it by phone. Text messaging has been particularly transformational. SMS is the most personal and immediate communications channel ever invented. The African people understand this. Do African enterprises? Have they grasped the opportunity to ‘talk’ to – and hear back from – their customers in real time?

Yes, some have. But plenty more have yet to see the light. And we should know. Alchemy is a Gambia-based mobile intermediary dedicated to enterprise mobile communications. Since 2015, we’ve been working with companies and government departments across Gambia, Senegal and Sierra Leone. We’ve helped them to set up and run their own A2P (application to person) messaging activity as an alternative to email, TV, radio and, well, doing nothing at all. You might think that switching to SMS would be an obvious strategy. TV and radio work well for big generic campaigns but are utterly ill-suited for targeted messages or service alerts. Email is better at customer care. But it is limited by reach. Millions of West Africans cannot access the internet.

That leaves SMS. It’s the perfect medium for notifications and alerts because it goes direct to the pocket of the customer. Industry data suggests 96% of texts are read. And, just as important, SMS is asynchronous. Recipients can store a text and reply to it later. That is a major advantage over voice, which is more intrusive and demands an immediate response.

These benefits explain why businesses all over the world are embracing messaging. The global numbers are pretty staggering. According to Mobilesquared, enterprises are on target to send 2.8 trillion A2P SMS messages this year – an average of 25.1 received per subscriber per month.

Analysts expect this activity to grow fast over the next decade – not least because MNOs and aggregators are now adding rich messaging (WhatsApp, RCS, Apple Messages for Business etc.) into the mix. In fact, Markets and Markets predicts the global A2P messaging market will grow from US$6.1 billion in 2022 to US$72.8 billion by 2025.

We are confident that African businesses can benefit enormously from this boom. The source of our confidence is personal experience. Before we launched into mobile messaging, we were in the wholesale cashew nut business. We learned on the job that SMS was easily the best way to update on customers on fast-moving prices and availability. We even developed our own technical platform on which to manage

our own text traffic. It proved transformational. Eventually, we realised this could work for other companies. We pivoted the whole business to A2P mobile messaging. It hasn’t been plain sailing. Our first task was to get regulatory approval from Gambia’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) to operate as a mobile intermediary. Even with this in place, we then had to convince the region’s telcos to allow us to connect to their SMS systems.

Next, we had to persuade enterprises to try mobile as a customer care channel. While a certain amount of technical work is needed to connect a business to our automated messaging systems, the biggest barrier has been cultural. Quite simply, few businesses want to be first to try something new – even when it offers as many benefits as enterprise SMS.

For this reason, we have concentrated our efforts on one sector in particular: financial services. Happily, this has been a great success. In Gambia, just 30% of people are banked. And yet a huge number of citizens still need to collect funds from financial institutions and money transfer services every day. The remittance business is huge, thanks to the large cohort of Africans sending money home from overseas. Typically, local banks will distribute these funds via agents and shops near to where people live. But they face the challenge of how to alert these recipients that there is money waiting for them. Needless to say, text solves this.

With an SMS, a bank or credit union can tell a customer that he or she has outstanding funds. It can give the name of the sender and supply a code that the recipient can take to an agent to release the cash. Thereafter, the bank can update the customer with his or her remaining balance.

Today, we are working with companies such as Trust Bank, Standard Chartered, GT Bank, Prime Insurance, BSIC Bank and Bloom Bank. We currently send around 500,000 messages a month on behalf of these enterprises, and the volumes are expanding all the time.


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