Unusual industries that have been powered by USSD (Part I)

Unusual industries that have been powered by USSD (Part I)

Usually, when people talk about USSD technology in Africa, they are referring to either mobile banking or communications with network providers. Those are, after all, the most common uses of the technology.

However, there are many more surprising applications of USSD across the African continent and beyond. USSD is simply a communication technology that allows our devices to communicate with our network’s computers, and people are finding interesting ways to work around it.

As of today, it is the most popular technology for transacting on the continent, taking up as much as 9 out of 10 transactions. It is also accessible by both feature phones and smartphones, meaning that it is the best way to reach people in far-flung areas.

In this article, we will look at three(3) industries where USSD has been used to deliver service to underserved people both now and in the past:

Social Media

Because of the dynamic nature of social media, it’s hard for most digital-savvy people to imagine accessing it via USSD. For people who do not have ready access to the internet but want to get in on the fun of social media, however, it is a great solution.

While doing the research for this article, we came across this very interesting application of USSD in South-East Asia and some parts of Africa.

  • In 2011, Tata Docomo, an Indian telecommunications company introduced Twitter and Facebook access via USSD.
  • Robi, Indonesia’s second-biggest telco company, allows users to subscribe to a read-only version of Twitter via USSD.
  • Tigo also allows Tanzanians to access read-only content from Twitter via USSD.
  • Zamtel, Zambia’s govt-owned telecommunications provider allows Zambians to read content on Twitter without a data connection.
  • Econet also tested using USSD to access Twitter and Facebook in Ziimbabwe in 2015.

Education

Education is often referred to as the bedrock of a nation. However, across Africa, there’s still a lot to be done to bring education to people. One of the major challenges is access to educational materials for poor, underserved families. Even as the internet is decentralizing information, many of these families are left behind because they do not have access.

According to Macrotrends, the literacy rate of African adults stood at 65.47% in 2019, a figure which has only marginally improved so far. In 2021, GSMA, reported that more than 75% of the continent’s population have access to a mobile phone, and that’s a number that’s growing fast.

The inference is clear. If you’re going to educate Africa, making it possible via mobile is important, more so if it can be via a low-cost channel like USSD. Some entrepreneurs have gotten the gist and are already working to create that. Examples are:

  • Eneza Education: Founded out of Kenya, Eneza Education is an m-education app that has used USSD to deliver content to over 10 million students across 3 African countries: Kenya, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire.
  • Jobberman, Africa’s biggest platform for hiring job seekers also mentioned that it would be piloting a USSD learning solution in Nigeria in 2021.

Agriculture

As everyone knows, food business is serious business. Agriculture is a major source of employment—a startling number of Africans are involved in it. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, nearly 61% of the population are classified as farmers according to the Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations.

The Agriculture foodchain is huge with multiple peculiarities across its breadth. It, therefore, was interesting to see the role that USSD had played in helping to improve it. Here are some we could find:

  • M-Louma: Since 2021, this app has been helping farmers in Senegal find buyers for their products using USSD. It also provides climate information to its users through its USSD channel.
  • One-acre Fund: Founded in Kenya, the One-acre fund is a non-profit social enterprise that helps over 1 million farmers in Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, and Uganda grow more food and earn more money. It uses USSD to enroll farmers and connect them with field officers around them.

Parting thoughts

Although USSD has gained popularity for its use in mobile banking and communications, those who understand it know that it is a tool with infinite potential. Just like with the internet, different kinds of solutions can be built on the USSD protocol. In fact, more solutions should be built on USSD. The upside is simple, yet impressive—anything built on USSD can be immediately accessible to millions of people across the continent.

If you’re looking to build USSD applications for Android devices, check out Hover - an Android SDK that allows people to automate USSD in the background of Android applications.