It’s not the radio, it’s what you do with the radio


Insight from one of the radio manufacturers at the conference I was at.

I had never really thought about it, but obviously the realities of a third world economy makes you innovate. One of the Google speakers was talking about the notion of extremes of arbitrage and pay-as-you-use in Africa, using taxis as an example. No taxis in Africa ever have a full tank of gas.
Similarly, someone said that prepaid airtime was invented in Africa. It sure as heck was effective; airtime is essentially an alternative currency in South Africa.
It is amazing, when you think about it, what the mobile carriers have done and continue to do. Firstly, it wasn’t that long ago that we didn’t even have Wi-Fi. It wasn’t that long ago that we didn’t have mobile phones. I remember when I got my first one.
When you think about what’s actually involved in putting together a network of ubiquitous coverage and high uptime, covering not only voice calls that have a fixed start and end, but data? I may complain continuously about my mobile carrier’s lousy uptime of its data network in Cape Town, but from another perspective this actually says more about my expectations than it does about anything else.
I made this point in recent weeks: when I look at the world from my perspective, from one angle it’s not that innovative. I’m in a commodity space. How innovative can you be when you have to assemble an offering of off-the-shelf products?
The innovation isn’t the what, it’s the how. It’s the go-to-market approach, for one thing. I was going to say it’s not product, it’s placement of the product. But that’s actually not true. It is the product too.
That is one interesting challenge: if the grand goal everyone is working towards at the end of the day is to get better, cheaper, coverage in Africa using whatever mix of technologies, there’s got to be innovation in the business model. It seems like mostly the innovation is in the mobile carrier space, and a lot of that innovation is in the past. Fixed line, point-to-point needs to find a place to live with mobile, and nomadic point-to-multipoint. And who pays?
I’m not sure who is the genius who invented prepaid airtime. But whoever that is helped bring connectivity to millions in Africa, by enabling micro-purchases and thereby making it actually affordable.
Is there a Wi-Fi equivalent of prepaid airtime? I don’t mean prepaid airtime over Wi-Fi, which is what Skyrove sells now. I mean something completely different. I don’t know, but I sure as heck would like to find out!
I did learn one more lesson, and that is never to leave the country again without my U.S. bank card or credit card. I was unable to draw cash in Senegal, and this made life very difficult, especially when I wound up in a situation that I’m not going to describe in detail, where I really needed a small amount of local currency. Well, as they say in South Africa, you make a plan.
Scratch that. I learned two lessons. I ate some wheat, and within an hour I looked like I was five months pregnant. I will not be making that mistake again; the five months of very clean eating have made me far more intolerant than I was before. Wheat may be tasty, but not at that price.
Like jobs that seem more glamorous than they are, there are things that are fun or charming when they don’t happen often, just because they add variety. If I actually lived in Joburg I probably wouldn’t find the constant power failures at traffic lights and ‘load shedding’ aka brownouts to be very fun at all. One does hope that things trend in the right direction, not the wrong one. Nature does abhor a vacuum.
I remember a time before I came to South Africa when I was as careful as anything. I even went to the AAA to get an international drivers license. Now? I wing it. Wang would approve.
I am normally a bit apprehensive whenever going through an immigration interview at the border. You just never know. When I landed back in South Africa, for the first time I wasn’t nervous in the slightest. There was even a miscommunication about whether or not I was working in South Africa with a work permit, but the exchange ended by my showing the officer some Twitter photos of the hail in Cape Town (there was so much hail it looked like snow), and he made a joke about Julius Malema.
A black South African citizen making a political joke to a white American resident. That’s the rainbow nation. It made my day.
All I can say is: Africa. I’m definitely not in Kansas anymore.
I know that I don’t know what I don’t know. But I like to think I learn fast.
  • “My exercise time was taken up teaching the FCC how to use a Google Hangout.” – Charlie
  • “At the end of the day, we’re just like the Nigerians. We’ll try and screw you over, too.” – Kehenya
  • “You must understand that you have some of that magic.” – John
  • “No, it’s a good thing you didn’t. One of my employees did that recently, and he’s now being fired.” – Dorothy (telling the truth in a public statement)
  • “Do they have Wi-Fi in here?” “No. You have to pay for it.” – overhead at O.R. Tambo

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