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Herman Heunis: the tech entrepreneur who stepped away from the limelight

Comments (0) Africa, Featured, Leaders

Herman Heunis

What’s next for Herman Heunis, the man who created “Africa’s Facebook”?

Herman Heunis is the man who created MXit, which was at one point Africa’s most subscribed to social media platform. Born in Namibia, Heunis grew up in a rural community where his parents ran a sheep farm, but Heunis was drawn to technology as a young man. Having moved to South Africa, Heunis attended Stellenbosch University in 1977 and 3 years later began his career in computer programming.

It was not until 1990 that Heunis launched the first of his own businesses, when he created an ICT consultancy firm. This was followed in 1998 by the launch of Swist Group Technologies, an information and communication technology company which specialized in software development. This entrepreneurial spirit would eventually lead to the formation of MXit.

The MXit explosion

MXit was launched in 2005 as an instant messaging service in Stellenbosch, and it took a rapid hold within the youth of South Africa. By 2013, MXit had a larger user base in South Africa than Facebook, with 45 million registered users in the country. This user base was growing by 60,000 new registered members per day, and 750 million daily messages were being sent across the MXit network.

MXit had originally been created as a mobile game, but it struggled to find sponsors, and the gaming angle was eventually removed. Heunis explained the evolution of the MXit service saying, “An integral part of the game was communication between players. After several metamorphoses we dropped the game idea and focused only on the communication part – that worked extremely well.”

The MXit application on iPhone

The MXit application on iPhone

When MXit was launched the entire team consisted of Heunis and 7 employees, but the rapid growth of the service attracted attention and further investment. Only 2 years into its existence, MXit received major investment from the Internet giant Naspers. What had been an 8 person company grew to employing 150 people as MXit looked to expand its reach far beyond the confines of South Africa.

Through innovative viral marketing, Heunis secured 500,000 users in Indonesia, and while the core of MXit’s users was still in South Africa, the platform was being used in more than 120 countries by 2011. The speed of MXit’s success and growth was impressive, but Heunis does not like to take all the credit, saying, “Timing was perfect and I had a fantastic team. The word ‘failure’ was never an option.”

Selling up and moving on

At the height of MXit’s popularity, Heunis made a shock decision, and decided to sell the company. Stepping down from his CEO position at the end of 2011, Heunis completed the sale of his company in 2012 to Alan Knott-Craig Jr. The decision was evidently a difficult one to make as Heunis said, “Selling a company that you have started is traumatic. Fact of the matter was, I was extremely tired and burned out, and staying on as CEO was not in the interest of the company.”

Knott-Craig Jr’s company, World of Avatar, did not grow MXit as Heunis might have hoped to see. In fact, in 2015 MXit was closed down, and Heunis expressed his disappointment on Twitter. Heunis tweeted that he regretted being too burnt out to continue at the helm in 2011, but that he truly believes that MXit had “all the ingredients to become a major success story.”

Heunis has said that his motto is “You are the captain of your ship,” and it appears that without its captain, MXit experienced a rapid decline after its sale to World of Avatar. As numbers dwindled the reversal of the company’s fortunes could not be stopped, and what had been Africa’s largest social media network ceased to exist.

Since departing from MXit, Heunis has stayed away from the limelight, and thrown himself into various hobbies including endurance bike races such as the Absa Cape Epic.

While MXit’s sale has ensured that Heunis need never work again, it was never money that motivated him anyway. Heunis has said, “For a true entrepreneur, the satisfaction of creating outweighs the money rewards.”

With that in mind, it would be too soon to say that we have seen the last of Heunis as an entrepreneur, but he says he has no immediate plans to return to the world of technology.

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Smartphone opens up new possibilities for Morocco

Comments (0) Business, Featured, Middle East

morocco smartphone

Mobile and internet penetration in Morocco continues to grow and crossover, as the country embraces technology.

Technology, and in particular smartphone technology, is changing the way Moroccans live their daily lives. More significantly, the nation’s nascent love affair with smartphones and web apps offers great opportunities for economic growth.

The National Authority of Morocco’s telecoms regulator (ANRT) released a report, earlier this year, that assessed the growth of the telecoms market from 2010-2015. The report found huge growth in mobile phone use, both in terms of penetration and the average time spent using a phone per customer. At the forefront of this expansion, the report highlighted falling costs, especially in areas such as 4G, which has helped bring the use of mobile phones and the Internet more inline. This expansion has seen a 146% increase in the average monthly usage of mobile owners in the past 5 years.

Embracing new ways of living

It would be foolish to dismiss the impact that smartphone technology can have within a country. The Arab Spring movement was, in part, driven forward by the use of social media platforms such as Twitter, which allowed on the spot reports and information from everyday people. While Morocco is a stable country, without much of the political unrest found elsewhere in North Africa, the impact of smartphones and online activity has the potential to bring about an economic revolution.

Online shopping has exploded in Morocco, and the use of mobile phones for web purchases has grown at an astonishing rate. This not only benefits online giants, but encourages local companies and outlets to take advantage of the new trend. Research carried out by MasterCard illustrates just how rapidly the use of smartphones for shopping has increased. In 2013, MasterCard reported that only 9% of users had made an online purchase via their phone in the previous few months. When this survey of 4,000 people was repeated in 2014, the figure had soared to 66%!

Aaron Oliver, head of emerging payments for MasterCard Middle East & Africa, said, “With rapidly increasing internet penetration rates and availability of secure online payment options, the country’s e-commerce industry is well placed to achieve significant growth.”

E-commerce could provide Morocco with a source of revenue that shows no sign of diminishing on a global level, never mind in an emerging market – where the scope for increasing penetration is even larger.

Are social media and apps the second wave of growth?

The ANRT report on mobile expansion showed that in 2012, only 16% of mobile phone owners in Morocco owned a smart phone. By 2014, this figure had risen to 38.2%, which indicates just how quickly the mobile landscape has changed. However, social media has not yet reached anything like the ubiquitous nature of its standing in Europe and North America. This is, like most areas involving the Internet, changing and it is changing at pace.

The Arab Social Media Report found that by 2014, Facebook penetration in Morocco was at 16% of the population, and had a growth rate of 13%, which was the second highest in North Africa.

With social media come apps, social media games and the proliferation of advertising. All of these things open up doors for startup companies, and a wider customer base for existing businesses.

It is therefore no surprise that Moroccan game designers and entrepreneurs have already begun to drive the second wave of Moroccan internet and mobile growth. The private telecom group Inwi now hosts an event called Inwi Days, in which game designers have 24 hours to create a new web game, and pitch it to a panel of judges in order to win a $12,000 prize.

Méditel Telecoms have launched a similar competition for app designers, and while this development of technology is fairly new, the majority of winners have maintained clear roots to Moroccan culture and traditions.

Inwi Days gave two games, Trombia and Runner Roul, the shared first prize, and both games were inspired by Moroccan culture.

Méditel’s app challenge was won by the app Maroc Culture, which is a trivia game that tests the player’s knowledge of Moroccan culture and traditions.

As mobile phones become even more popular, and the Internet plays a greater role in the lives of people across Morocco, such markets will continue to grow. A young generation of innovators is now taking advantage of these openings to create new businesses and trends, but ones that remain quintessentially Moroccan.

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The Middle East connects on social media

Comments (1) Business, Featured, Middle East

Facebook and WhatsApp are the most popular social platforms. But more people in the region are using new tools for sharing photos and videos.

On the 27th day of Ramadan last year, millions of people around the world were able to see photos and videos taken by pilgrims in Mecca during a social media campaign that gave non-Muslims a rare glimpse of worshippers in the holy city.

The #Mecca_live campaign, in which 300,000 people used Snapchat and Twitter to capture or distribute images, was emblematic of the growing use of social media in the Middle East and North Africa.

Facebook and WhatsApp dominate social media in the Arab world. But there is growing use of new tools for capturing sharing photos and videos, content that can cross boundaries of cultures and language in the diverse region.


Social platforms enable consumer outreach

Several studies have documented to rise in social media in the Middle East and North Africa. Information about usage is important for businesses and institutions that want to reach users at a time when digital and social media are changing practices and attitudes in the region, especially among young people.

Businesses, news organizations, and other institutions that want to understand and connect with the region’s growing market and figure out how to direct their efforts need to understand social media usage, said Damian Radcliffe, a University of Oregon journalism professor who compiled the most recent report.

While Facebook is the dominant social platform in a number of countries, WhatsApp, Instagram and Snapchat have pockets of popularity, Radcliffe writes in his fourth annual report, “Social Media in the Middle East: The Story of 2015,” Radcliffe looks at data from a variety of sources to outline social media usage in the region.

Facebook has 80 million users in region

Facebook has about 80 million users in the region, which has a total population of more than 350 million, and is adding more than one million new users a month. By comparison, the United States has 195 million Facebook users.

Egypt has the most Facebook users – 27 million – or about a third of the nation’s population.

At the same time, the United Arab Emirates has the most active Facebook user base. On average users spend an hour a day on Facebook, compared to 40 minutes globally, according to Facebook. With a population of nearly 10 million, the UAE has nearly four million Facebook users, or about 40 percent of the total population.

Other nations with large Facebook user bases are Saudi Arabia, with 12 million users, about 40 percent of the population, and Iraq, with 11 million users or about a third of the country’s residents.

Facebook widely popular

A 2015 study found that Facebook is also the most popular social platform in the Kuwait, Oman, Iraq, Palestine, Jordan and Tunisia in addition to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

WhatsApp, a messaging service acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $19 billion, is the leading platform in Lebanon, Sudan and Algeria, the study said.

The two platforms are equally popular in Qatar, Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Libya.

Radcliffe noted that WhatsApp is being used for more than text messaging. He said it is increasingly used to discuss different interests from religion to cooking to news and is becoming a platform for e-commerce.



Photo-sharing popular

Instagram, a photo-sharing platform that Facebook bought in 2012 for $1 billion, has 25 million users in the Middle East and North Africa.

One marketing expert attributed Instagram’s growing popularity to the fact that visuals cross language and cultural boundaries.

“No one country behaves and speaks with the same language or dialect and they certainly don’t have the same dynamics in terms of economy, language, lifestyle, religion, and ethnicity,” Ema Linaker said.

Saudi Arabia has 10.7 million Instagram users, while there are 3.2 million in Egypt and 2.2 million in the United Arab Emirates.

Video viewing on the increase

Videos are also becoming a staple of social media.

The region is the fastest growing consumer of videos on Facebook with consumption is twice the global average.

Periscope, a live-streaming application launched last year by Twitter, is popular in Turkey. Turkey has the highest use of Periscope of any country in the world after the United States. Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir are among the top 10 cities for Periscope use.

Periscope has a strong connection to Turkey. Its inventor created the application after a he visited then country when civil unrest erupted in 2013. Unable to get a street-eye view of Istanbul protests on traditional media, he came up with the idea of creating an easy-to-use live-streaming application.

According to Google data, video viewing on YouTube is also increasing. The amount of time spent watching videos on YouTube increased by 80 percent and the region is second only to the United States in online video viewership

Twitter less popular

Twitter, meanwhile, has very mixed adoption. On the high end, more than half of all social media users in Saudi Arabia and UAE have Twitter accounts although actual daily usage is quite low in Saudi Arabia.

Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Libya have low Twitter penetration but their users are very active.

Twitter users are mostly young, with people aged 18-24 accounting to 45 percent of users in the region.

Among young, digital access change attitudes

Digital and social media are having a profound impact on young people around the globe and no less in the Arab world.

Born between 1977 and 1997, they are tech savvy and account for 40 percent of the population of the region.

Access to information and debate on digital and social platforms is propelling them away from the traditional perspectives of their elders, according to Booz & Company, a strategy consulting firm that has surveyed thousands of young people in the region.

“These young people are far more active as consumers and as critics. They are involved more directly than their parents in the media they consume and purchase, and they are more outspoken about society, economics, and politics.”

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Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed connects on social media

Comments (0) Featured, Middle East, Politics

sheikh mohammed twitter

The pioneering ruler of Dubai is conquering a new frontier – social media.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has built a global social media following of millions of people and he is using social channels to connect with his citizenry and beyond.

He has 5.2 million Twitter followers and 3 million Facebook “likes” plus thousands of additional followers on LinkedIn, Instagram and other social media platforms. (By way of comparison, U.S. President Barak Obama has 5.5 million Twitter followers on his official POTUS account and 46 million “likes” on his Facebook page.)

Mohammed is @HHShkMohd on Twitter, HHSheikhMohammed on Facebook and HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum on LinkedIn.

Known for being the force behind Dubai’s rapid development as a major global business and air transport hub as well as for his love of horse racing, Mohammed, 66, has been Emir of Dubai and Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates since 2006.

Connecting with young people

In recent years, the ruler has encouraged his countrymen to embrace social media as means to connect with young people and encourage innovation.

sheikh mohammed arab influencer summit“The significance of these (social media) channels lies in their ability to reach out easily to all members of the society through personal devices,” he said at a Social Media Influencer Summit, which he convened in 2015 to discuss legislation to insure the “best use of social media platforms.”

“It is our duty to help our young people and future generations by building a knowledge platform to protect them from any destructive and negative thoughts that affect their full potential and create constructive paths for Arab societies,” he said.

Discussing national and global issues

Mohammed has initiated a number of discussions on social media about issues facing the country and the world.

“We want every man, woman and child to join us in the biggest ever national brainstorming session to find new ideas for health and education,” he tweeted in 2013. “Education and health concern all of us, so I invite all of UAE society to think collectively of creative solutions.”

In 2015, during Ramadan, he used social media to launch a UAE Water Aid campaign to provide clean drinking water to people in poor countries. “Statistics show that 3.4 million people die every year because they lack clean drinking water,” Sheikh Mohammed said on Twitter. The campaign raised nearly $50 million in a month.

Emphasis on youth, Dubai development

Mohammed also posts frequent updates on both Twitter and Facebook describing his activities, which often focus on the need to develop the country and its young people.

One recent Tweet showed a photo of him meeting with students. “I had the pleasure today of meeting a group of students of the Mohammed bin Rashid school for communication. Positive and ambitious and persevering,” he tweeted.

“I told them constant communication with the people and listen to them … and the removal of barriers with them is the most important characteristic of a successful leader and media also successful,” he said in a follow up tweet.

Another has a photo of Mohammed in the cockpit of an airplane with the tweet: “UAE carriers have 530 aircraft worth $160 bn on their order books. UAE is a major growth driver for global aviation.”

Dubai transformation began in the 1970s

Air transport was a first major step in Dubai’s rapid development and transformation into a major global city starting in the 1970’s.

Mohammad as a young man oversaw expansion of the state-owned Dubai International Airport beginning in 1974. A decade later, he would oversee the launch of Emirates airline, which has become the largest airline in the Middle East and a strong competitor in the global airline industry.

Under Mohammed’s leadership, Dubai has become the air and financial hub of the Gulf. After he lifted a ban on foreign land ownership in 2002 and allowed the creation of special economic development zones, Dubai was able to attract significant development and multinational companies flocked to state.

Touting government efficiency

According to his LinkedIn profile, Mohammed’s “vision for the UAE has been proven successful through achieving unprecedented rankings on global indexes and has lately achieved number one worldwide for government efficiency, according to IMD data.”

More recently, it says, Dubai has developed as a humanitarian center.

“The UAE is not just a financial and economic nucleus, neither is it just a tourism hub: we are also a nerve centre of a global humanitarian work.” These words of Sheikh Mohammed physically manifest in the many charity and humanitarian foundations established by HH (Mohammed), which are major local and international players providing assistance and opportunities to the less fortunate around the globe.

Horse racing and poetry

Mohammed’s passion for horseracing is widely known. In 1992, he founded Godolphin, a family-owned enterprise that has become the largest thoroughbred racing stable in the world. The family-owned enterprise has farms in the United States, Ireland, England and Australia.

With an estimated net worth of $4 billion, he is also a well-regarded poet and has published books on leadership.

Social media for governance

On social media, however, his focus is on governance and using new technologies to improve Dubai and its people.

“The world is moving at a very fast pace and technology is evolving dramatically. We all remember how the traditional media emerged modestly but it quickly gained momentum driven by technology to become a force that impacted governments, changing the course of their work. It transformed the world into a small village.”

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