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Africa Ready for IT Goods And Services
AFRICA, once largely ignored by IT and telecommunications companies, now forms one of their strongest priorities as a market for goods and services.

Veritas Software uses SA as a springboard into Africa, where its business is growing quickly. Mike Rees, the company's business development manager for Africa, says growth in South African business is good, and markets are opening up in Nigeria, East Africa and the Indian Ocean Islands. "We have been active in Africa since the beginning of this year; the demand for technology is strong," he says. "In the past, many companies have tried to run their African operations from Europe, but this doesn't usually work. Being South African, we have a feel for Africa and how business is done on this continent. Many European firms are simply too afraid to do business in Africa. "Skills remain a problem selling and implementing systems can be difficult. But we have a partner programme that helps. People are trained and certified on Veritas products. This is formal certification, where people are tested on what they have learned," says Rees.

Data management and backup software is an often overlooked essential to trading in Africa. "Because the power grid is so unpredictable in many countries, companies need to back up and manage their critical business data regularly.

"Africa is a strong focus for us this year and we are already operating in countries like Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Nigeria, Mauritius and others. We see the full range of businesses in these areas, from those that employ state-of-the-art sophisticated technology to those that have nothing. Nigeria is a market with a huge potential and it could, in time, become bigger than the South African market for our software. Right now, though, that is not the case. Kenya and East Africa are poised for significant growth," he says.

Doing business in Africa, however, is not without its challenges. There are huge distances to cover, and this pushes up the cost of selling. There is also a melting pot of languages and dialects to contend with, as well as problems with infrastructure like telecommunications. Rees says awareness about the need for data back-up and management is growing. "The first time we made trips into Africa, very few people knew what was meant by back-up and disaster recovery. Now there is a huge awareness and a strong demand for our software on the continent. "Many firms operating in Africa are plugged into the global economy via the internet. These days, business information is the lifeblood of most organizations and it needs to be available at the touch of a button.

"Africa offers opportunities for companies prepared to do business there," he says.

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WAP Technology in Abuja
MTech Communic-ations CEO, Chika Nwobi, has said that Nigeria has all the ingredients to be an extremely successful market for WAP and SMS applications. Nwobi said this recently in an analysis he gave of the two-year old technology which he recently pioneered in Nigeria. Speaking on the implications of its fast entry into the Nigerian market Nwobi said, "WAP has had varying degrees of success in different markets from brilliant success to woeful failure, but Nigeria has all, in fact Nigeria is a uniquely qualified candidate for what I refer to as a mobile economy, an economy in which the mobile network is the primary technology channel which businesses and individuals use to communicate, deliver services and conduct business."

Nwobi bases his optimism on WAP's experience in other countries where it has been applied. According to him "WAP has been successful in markets where access to Internet via PC is not very common like in Japan and Eastern Europe." He said in countries like USA where people had Internet-connected PCs at home, in offices, in libraries and almost everywhere they went, there was less need for WAP service and so the service had not been so popular.

He said another factor that determined the success of WAP was the amount of relevant content available. "There is the need for applications and services that add value to people's lives and which need to be accessed at any time and from anywhere", he said.

It was for this reason, he said, that MTech was focused on providing relevant content for its service. He said MTech was in a partnership with Smart Pay Nigeria to provide mobile banking and mobile commerce services to all the member banks of the Smart Pay consortium. This he said would allow an MLife subscriber to view his account balances and to pay his bills via his handset. He said users would also be able to top up their airtime using this collaborative service.

Other relevant application services included in the Mlife Service are access to email like Yahoo and Onebox and also access to company email and Intranet applications with more applications in the pipeline including some that will be based on SMS.

According to Nwobi WAP's major attractions were convenience and timeliness. He gave a great example of the use of WAP as a trader being able to "check his bank account to ensure that a customer has deposited payment as agreed before handing over goods."

WAP is the technology standard for providing mobile users with access to information and application services from their mobile device. Just as the emergence of the Internet gave the ability to access information (news, databases, flight times, prices, sports scores etc.), communicate (email, and chat) and to trade(e-commerce), WAP enables the same access as the Internet but makes it possible to do them from anywhere and at anytime. WAP can be used to give a mobile user access to information on the Internet or to enterprise systems like corporate servers and databases from their handset. WAP can also connect users to news and entertainment content like sports scores and games, while enabling users to buy and sell using their handsets.

The WAP technology was developed taking into consideration several factors like the small screen size of a mobile device, the limited keypad for entry on a handset and the relatively slow speed of sending basic data over the GSM network. The technology was therefore optimized for this context. It is not graphic intensive and applications are designed to minimize the amount of required text entry. The focus is on getting the information to the user as opposed to providing colour and pretty pictures like on regular web pages.

For those who have continued to wonder how a Nigerian company can implement such cutting edge technology so quickly after the introduction of the GSM networks in Nigeria, Nwobi explains this away easily as the result of his international experience gained with mobile technology while working in the USA as a wireless application consultant. During this time he had the benefit of exposure with Fortune 500 companies where he helped formulate their wireless strategy and develop software to take advantage of the WAP and SMS technology in their business.

MTech is a new company formed by several individuals with experience in telecommunications in Nigeria and internationally. The CEO, Chika Nwobi and his team of software and network engineering professionals pioneered the entry of WAP in Nigeria under the MLife service. MTN provides MTech with the pipe into the GSM network which MTech needs to deliver this service. MTech owns the WAP gateway and develops and maintains the WAP content software.

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