Twitter and MTN Cameroon have announced a partnership that enables MTN subscribers in Cameroon to send and receive tweets from their mobile phones using SMS. Users access the service by texting “START” to 8711 on MTN’s network. Standard messaging rates apply for sending SMS updates, but tweets may be received at no cost. The announcement was made by Jessica Verrilli, Director of Strategic Initiatives & Corporate Development at Twitter during the Africa Media Leaders Forum in YaoundÃ©.
Jessica blogged about the partnership recently and includes a video interview on the launch and Twitter’s involvement with #AMLF.
By striking this deal with MTN, Cameroon joins a select few African countries with short code access to Twitter’s service. For the moment, this includes neighboring internet giant Nigeria and Madagascar. This is big news for Cameroon where smart phone adoption and internet penetration remains relatively low.
Why it matters
The Twitter-MTN Cameroon deal is significant on several levels. While perhaps not the paradigm shift of Facebook Zero, Twitter mobile is already showing signs of being a strong driver of ICT usage and innovation in its own right. How? While everyone is eager to get their hands on low-cost smart phones like the Android-powered IDEOS that debuted in Kenya, at USD $100 it still isn’t that cheap, nor are the data plans. Twitter’s service is made for the low-end handsets that dominate the mobile market in Cameroon and elsewhere in Africa. By setting the cost of receiving updates to zero, you create an instant medium for a new form of communication. This leads to increased efficiencies, better access to market data, propagation of memes, new ideas and most importantly—opens the door for innovation. It has the potential to democratize information flow between the internet-haves and have-nots.
Rural farmers in Cameroon using Twitter?
Twitter’s deal with MTN Cameroon is already being seen a boon for cost-conscious startups. Among the biggest barriers for those building mobile information services is the prohibitive cost of SMS, currently priced at 50 francs (10 cents) for sending an out of network SMS. Even at bulk SMS gateway rates, these costs can quickly add up to the majority of a lean startup’s burn rate. Many enterprising techies have already begun exploring ways to use Twitter as a no-cost group SMS platform. Paul Graham would love this, since one of his three tenets of creating a startup is to spend as little money as possible. One early entrant in this space is Agro-Hub, an ActivSpaces social business that aims to quickly build a user base by delivering market data, news and sustainable farming tips at no cost. Until recently, the bulk of their costs have gone into paying for SMS:
Agro-Hub realizes that their target audience—smallholder farmers in Cameroon—aren’t willing to pay for an unproven SMS service, so their model is based on providing free updates. After farmers follow Agro-Hub:Informer on Twitter with their mobiles, Agro-Hub:Trader aims to earn revenue from nominal fees collected when goods are sold directly to the end consumer. Farmers benefit from economies of scale by organizing into cooperatives and bypassing exploitative middlemen, while consumers get local produce at reduced costs.
This model stands in contrast to Google’s innovative SMS offering that launched with fanfare to serve Uganda’s poor only to see usage plummet when mobile operators started charging a premium for the SMSs.
A Twitter-MTN Cameroon partnership raises the bar for everyone. Twitter gains an early foothold in a growing market, innovators get a no-cost group SMS platform and MTN subscribers connect with one another and consume mobile content like never before. Meanwhile, the operator continues to make its ridiculously high profits as usual. In the long run, Twitter’s entry into Cameroon increases the base on which innovation can occur. While Google has missed the boat on the cost of access issue, Twitter and Facebook are poised to make their mark with messaging platforms that transcend borders and connect Africans globally.