DOers in Africa: Empowering People Through Mobile Technology

Assane Seck, founder & CEO of Djanoa

This past June I was fortunate enough to play host to an entrepreneur by the name of Assane Seck.  Assane is the founder and CEO of Djanoa, a cloud SMS platform that is currently in beta in Senegal.  Assane was visiting the U.S. as part of the Innovation Summit and Mentoring Partnership with Young African Leaders, a three-week professional development program sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

As part of the mentorship program, participants were matched with companies in their field and spent a week or so at their offices.  Assane ended up spending a week with HTC here in Seattle where he met James Pratt, a former colleague of mine.

When James learned that Assane was building an SMS platform for developers, he reached out to me to see if I was interested in spending a day with him.  One billion people live in Africa and their primary device is the cell phone, so I jumped at the chance to learn about this mobile market from an expert.

Djanoa – Cloud SMS in Senegal

In between bites of burgers at Lunchbox Laboratory, Assane filled me in on life as a developer, entrepreneur and platform provider in Senegal. He is a developer first and foremost and is the primary coder for Djanoa.  It was really interesting to hear about SMS applications from the perspective of someone building a developer platform in Senegal. Phone numbers are hard to come by; they are expensive and heavily regulated. So Djanoa provides keywords to their developers instead.  They can purchase keywords like “pharma” or “taxi”.  A consumer would then send a text to Djanoa’s shortcode and begin their message with the keyword of the application they want to use.

Djanoa’s developer dashboard

It was cool to hear that Twilio had influenced some of the design decisions that Assane made as he was building Djanoa, especially the use of webhooks. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that things on the internet have a global reach, and products can influence developers and entrepreneurs even in countries where they’re not fully available.

Hehe – Mobile Apps in Rwanda

Clarisse Iribagiza, CEO of HeHe Ltd

After Assane had rejoined the rest of his colleagues at the Summit, he sent me an email about meeting Clarisse Iribagiza, CEO of HeHe Ltd.  HeHe is a mobile apps development company that she founded in Rwanda with three other classmates in 2010 while they were at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology.  She is an alumni of MIT’s AITI program, which helped launch HeHe.

I reached out to Clarisse to learn more about the kind of work her company is doing with SMS and I was pleasantly surprised to receive a photo of her rocking a Twilio tee along with an update on their new platform:

We have been building mostly SMS based applications for organizations like the Nile Foundation and a couple of government ministries and businesses here. Our main product is an SMS and web based platform that allows businesses/institutions to engage more with their audience via SMS. We like to call it a social network for businesses and their clients. It doubles as a mobile marketing platform and customer help desk.

This August we will be launching the generic platform where businesses will be able to sign up and create profiles about their businesses.  Information like location, services and events will be available to their customers through web and SMS. They will also be able to get useful feedback from their audience.

Empowering 1 Billion People Through Mobile

Assane Seck, Fatoumata Fall and Ivar Nadae

After chatting with Clarisse, I checked-out MIT’s website for AITI.  Their explanation for focusing on fostering mobile innovation was insightful:

A mobile phone is not only a communication device, it also represents the most accessible computing device to the majority of humans. Mobile phones are tools that can promote development by inspiring new business opportunities and increasing efficiencies. Local entrepreneurs’ innovative use of mobile technology is at the heart of this revolution.

It’s inspiring to see the work that Assane and Clarisse are doing to enable developers to build applications for a billion people because it’s through this force-multiplier that more and more innovative applications will change peoples’ lives for the better.