Google Launches Health and Trading SMS Info Services in Uganda (but at a high price)

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Jun 30, 2009

Google, in partnership with MTN Uganda, has launched 'Google SMS', a set of services that allows users in the country to access SMS information services.  These include, for example, access to health and agriculture tips, weather information, and news and sports.  Google offers these online information services aready on the web, but is now expanding them to SMS - however, at a high price per SMS. 

"We seek to serve a broad base of people -- not only those who can afford to access the Internet from the convenience of their workplace or with a computer at home," said Rachel Payne, Google's country manager for Uganda, in a post on the Google blog.

Africa has, after India, the second-higest growth rate for mobile penetration (India surpassed Africa in growth this year). According to the ITU which tracks telecommunication trends, one third of Africans own mobile phone. The majority of the handsets in Africa offer just voice and SMS functionalities, even as smart phone use increasing. 

Currently, MTN Uganda is the only supporting carrier. 

How It Works

There are three SMS services offered. 

SMS Tips is a service that accessed by sending a message to the Ugandan shortcode 6001. Texting a short query to 6001 will return, for example, tips on sexual & reproductive health (family planning, maternal & child health, HIV/AIDS, STI/STDs, sexuality), information on health clinics near the user, the clinic’s telephone number and services offered; and weather forecasts and critical agriculture information, such as tips on planting, pest management and disease control targeted at farmers to help improve their livelihood. 

An interactive demo of the service is here.

SMS Search allows users to with a simple text message to short code 6006 to query for weather, news, sports scores, horoscopes, and all sorts of other information.

The feature many people are particularly excited about is SMS Trader, a marketplace application that allows users to buy and sell good and services using SMS. The platform is described in more detail here. 

What It Means

it is interesting to note that companies like Google, in cooperation with a mobile carrier, are now aggressively entering the mobile information space. Previously exclusively the purview of NGOs, SMS information services are increasngly becoming interesting value-added services for operators.  The Google service in Urganda was developed with Grameen Foundation's AppLab, a Ugandan-based mobile innovation lab of the Seattle, USA-based nonprofit. According to a press release of Grameen Foundation, the content for the service was indeed developed in collaboration with local NGOs.

The information in the applications was developed in collaboration with key local partners. The Busoga Rural Open Source Development Initiative (BRODSI) provides locally-relevant and actionable agricultural information created and tested by small-holder farmers and designed to meet their needs. For the health application, AppLab works with Marie Stopes Uganda, the local affiliate of a leading service provider for sexual and reproductive health, and Straight Talk Foundation, a Ugandan NGO which specializes in health communication.

Using the Google Trader application, local buyers and sellers, such as small-holder farmers, are able to broaden their trading networks and reduce their transaction costs. AppLab worked with the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, TechnoServe and SNV Netherlands Development Organisation to hone the concept with banana farmers and traders in southwestern Uganda.

The High Cost

Unfortunately, the service is currently only available on MTN, not on the competing Zain network, or any of the additional three Ugandan carriers. 

Additionally, as has been pointed out by Steve Song and others, SMS services are limited by the cost of an SMS in a given country.  SMS, particularly in many countries in Africa, are often disproportionally high in comparison to average incomes. The Google SMS servince in Uganda costs shs220 per SMS, for example.  This is much more than a typical SMS, curiously.  Uganda Telecom, for example, charges shs33 which is the most affordable SMS rate in Uganda for within its network. But even across networks, the charrge is shs111 - half that of the Google service. It makes us wonder whether Google and MTN upcharge or texts are sent outside of Uganda. UT's charges for texts outside the country, or example, are shs169 per SMS, and other carriers charge shs220 for the same -- the same price at the Google information service. 

This will, be definition, limit access of such services to the poorest individuals in the country who are least likely to afford an SMS almost eight times the cost of the cheapest SMS in country.  Which means that Grameen Foundation's headline for it's press release "GF, Google and MTN Uganda Launch New Mobile Services for Uganda's Poor" might just be a bit misleading.

**Update**:  Rachel Payne, Google lead in Uganda, emailed to an inquiry with the correct pricing information:

Hi Katrin, Yes, I saw your blog post where you speak in detail about the pricing. However, what is written is not quite accurate. You see, Google, Grameen and MTN launched three types of mobile services yesterday: Google SMS Tips (targeting low-income, rural users primarily), Google SMS Search (urban, mainstream) and Google Trader (all users).

The second service is somewhat similar to other “premium SMS” content services currently available (except that it is built on Google search technology) and therefore, is the same price as other content services. To accommodate the first group, we have priced Google SMS Tips at half the price of a content service; this is available for the cost of a person-to-person SMS, which many rural individuals are willing and able to afford currently.

The third service drives income and livelihood benefits, so we decided to begin charging at the normal content service rate and monitor whether this excludes rural communities or not (we did extensive testing during the pilot, which included pricing discussions and most of the users found that Google Trader provided far greater, direct value than the 110 shilling price difference). For all services, we are offering them for free for the first few months, just to ensure that all users have an equal opportunity to try them out, risk-free and allow them to access critical content during this period so that they can assess whether or not they would like to continue to use the service.

So, bottom line: Google SMS Tips (targeting low-income, rural users primarily) = 110shs per sms, Google SMS Search (urban, mainstream) = 220 shs per sms, and Google Trader (all users) = 220shs once the free period is over. 

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