SMS: 20 Years Later, Texting Becomes Brisk Business in Uganda

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In short
The short message service (SMS) made 20 years today and in Uganda it has developed into an entire multi-billion-shilling industry employing and benefiting many more.

 The short message service (SMS) made 20 years today and in Uganda it has developed into an entire multi-billion-shilling industry employing and benefiting many more.
 
On December 3, 1992, the very first SMS in the world containing the words “Merry Christmas” was sent by an engineer from a computer using the United Kingdom network of Vodafone, a mobile phone operator.
 
At that time, Matti Makkonen, a Finnish engineer who had conceived the idea at least eight years earlier, never anticipated how the new innovation would span out. He nonetheless went ahead and put forward the idea of a mobile phone messaging service. This was to become the SMS standard.
 
Makkonen, dubbed the "father of SMS", told the BBC that at that time he saw the SMS as part of the mobile technology and so no reason to get a trademark for it. He said he does not regret having not patented it.
 
The SMS, also known as texting, allows for short text messages to be sent from one cell phone to another cell phone or from the Web to a cell phone. It includes words, numbers or spaces and traditionally it can’t exceed 160 characters.
 
In Uganda, the SMS platform has transformed into an industry. A number of companies dealing in texting as a core business have been set up many of which are raking in billions of shillings. Individuals as well as organizations are using SMS as an alternative communication system.
 
Joyce Wandika of SMS One, one of the leading SMS companies in Uganda, says the SMS industry has grown and diversified to the extent that it is a multi-billion-shilling business. The true extent of the industry is not known as there is no readily available data.
 
Wandika says the SMS has transformed so many people’s lives especially the unemployed who readily found a niche in business. She says Kampala city alone has so many SMS players that the innovation is being stretched to cater for many needs like advocacy, public service information, invitations, alerts and so much more.
 
Wandika says a number of individuals actually buy SMS credit from mobile phone operators and resell to the public making tidy profits.
 
She attributes the SMS success to the fact that it is cheap, uses a common technology and is accessible to many in the shortest time possible.
 
Wandika says the SMS industry, like many others, is facing challenges especially the problem of unsolicited SMS messages. She attributes this to the free manner in which the industry operates.
 
Stephen Banage, a director in SMS Media, says the industry is “simply good” and has transformed the way people communicate.
 
To mark the 16 days of activism, the Uganda Women’s network is using SMS to spread messages on domestic violence and how to combat the problem.
 
In Kenya, SMS is being used to offer medical support to HIV positive patients on ARVs. Sarah Karanja, a study coordinator of WelTel, an organization that provides patient-centred health solutions, says they use SMS to reach to patients on ARVs. She says they text to find out whether the ARVs are running out, whether there are side effects or whether they have other challenges.
 
Karanja says the patients’ answers determine the kind of quick assistance they would need like where to get the nearest doctor or health worker, the nearest health unit or food distribution centre and so forth.
 
She says they want the innovation rolled out to the other countries in East Africa.
 
Other SMS-linked innovations have been in the access to examinations results, latest news, terror alerts, health alerts, official government announcements and social invitations, among others.
 
Some of the challenges facing the nascent industry are unsolicited messages, content of the messages, regulation of the content providers, copyright infringement and effectiveness of blind messaging, among others.

 

About the author

David Rupiny
In his own words, David Rupiny says, "I am literally a self-trained journalist with over 12 years of experience. Add the formative, student days then I can trace my journalism roots to 1988 when as a fresher in Ordinary Level I used to report for The Giraffe News at St Aloysius College Nyapea in northern Uganda.


In addition to URN for which I have worked for five years now, I have had stints at Radio Paidha, Radio Pacis, Nile FM and KFM. I have also contributed stories for The Crusader, The New Vision and The Monitor. I have also been a contributor for international news organisations like the BBC and Institute for War and Peace Reporting. I am also a local stringer for Radio Netherlands Worldwide.


I am also a media entrepreneur. I founded The West Niler newspaper and now runs Rainbow Media Corporation (Rainbow Radio 88.2 FM in Nebbi). My areas of interest are conflict and peacebuilding, business, climate change, health and children and young people, among others."