March 31, 2008

The Work

I haven’t written much about the actual project I’m working on here in SA. Part of that is the sincerely amusing irony that I work more now as a “volunteer” than I generally do as a paid consultant. So by the end of the day, when I do sit down to write, I’m often trying not to think about “work.” But lately, I eat, breathe, sleep, even IV inject my project, so there’s been no time for writing at all. (Much love to those of you who actually read this blog. Even more love to those who send me emails asking why I’m not writing. =))

When I first arrived I thought simple SMS information solutions would be the route to go for loveLife’s mobile program. In the US, it’s the cheapest, easiest and least technologically taxing of mobile tools, so it seemed like a logical choice. What I quickly learned, however, is that South Africa is in a whole other playing field than America.

For starters, SA has one of the highest mobile internet usage rates in the world. Forget the computer age, Africa (like many other developing countries) has leapfrogged directly into the mobile future. No need to lay cables. No reason to buy expensive hardware. Just access the web on your favorite personal device, your phone. Oh and by the way, it will cost you nearly nothing to do so. Data transmission rates are a fraction of a cent in US dollars, sometimes per hour of roaming.

Second, South Africa has a particularly unique combination of market forces: cosmopolitan (read wealthy) hubs of Jo’burg and Cape Town have created an incredibly sophisticated advertising industry + essentially little to no mobile regulation. So as mobile uptake skyrockets, advertisers are readily funding entrepreneurs to figure out how to reach people on their phones, who in turn have already tested all the possible models. The winner: MXit. 7.6 million kids, with tens of thousands joining each day, chatting away over the mobile internet (as opposed to SMS) using this tool. Ask any South African kid what they do all day, and they’ll tell you they’re on MXit.

The third piece of the project strategy puzzle is loveLife itself.

(1) loveLife has the most massive on-the-ground NGO footprint I’ve ever seen. Through youth centers, community partnerships, school & government programs, and a huge peer education network, loveLife literally reaches millions of kids with face-to-face interaction every year. On top of that, they have one of South Africa’s largest media holdings, with massive reach on TV, radio, outdoor, and the country’s largest youth publication, with a 650,000+ print circulation. Most in the international community don’t realize this, but no one can reach the South African youth market the way loveLife can.

(2) loveLife has learned that what works in other places, doesn’t work in South Africa. Kids here get the HIV prevention message; they hear it everywhere. They don’t listen, however, because they don’t care. Day-to-day life for most young South Africans offers little to no opportunity. You have no money, no access, no hope, and sadly thanks to the AIDS epidemic, likely no family or community to guide you through either. HIV is just a tiny bump compared to life’s many other hurdles.

In response, loveLife has moved from direct HIV prevention messaging to a more holistic approach. Their 2008 media campaign is working to shift young people’s perception of opportunity, while their massive on-the-ground program will give South African youth direct access to tools, skills development, and information to “Make Your Move,” the campaign’s tag.

(Here’s the campaign teaser ad, designed simply to introduce the concept of “Make Your Move” and get kids to call their Call Center to find out more.)

So after all of this explanation, what am I doing for loveLife on mobile: we’re developing (potentially/hopefully) South Africa’s largest mobile social network.

More tomorrow on why and how. (I have to sleep at some point. =))

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