How to navigate Africa's messaging landscape

What makes a messaging service successful? Cellfind’s Stefan van Jaarsveld unpacks two of the oldest, but smartest, options on the market: SMS and USSD.

Johannesburg, 11 Mar 2024
Stefan van Jaarsveld, Product Manager: Messaging, Cellfind.
Stefan van Jaarsveld, Product Manager: Messaging, Cellfind.

Is SMS a dying service? With messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram becoming increasingly popular, SMS (or short message service) was predicted to be on the decline, but the opposite is true. A 2023 study found that businesses that text are 217% more successful, which is why Stefan van Jaarsveld, Cellfind’s product manager for messaging, believes SMS is here for the long term.

Whether SMS forms a part of your marketing strategy or if you’re talking about financial institutions – as well as other industries – that rely on one-time passwords (OTPs), SMS is here to stay. “To send OTPs timelessly, you need a reliable source that’s not internet-reliant. Whether it’s for standard, two-way communication with customers for marketing-related messages or banking, SMS is a focal point,” says Van Jaarsveld. For businesses, SMS is often considered a smart choice due to its widespread accessibility, instant delivery, higher open rates and cost-effectiveness. “The versatility across the different industries and applications makes it the winner, and it is here to stay,” he adds.

Smart, reliable, simple

Although SMS is one of the oldest technologies, the fact that it is network agnostic – like USSD – makes it a smart choice, especially when trying to reach customers at scale. “It’s instant. It’s on your phone. That alone makes it more effective than any other channel at this stage,” says Van Jaarsveld. “Whether you’re doing bulk marketing where you actually initiate the message or you’re running a campaign with automated responses, or a survey or petition…” For those organisations looking to send SMS globally, Van Jaarsveld explains that for international coverage, it’s important to partner with a company that has routes in place. “We’ve got the authority agreements and our own binds within the various MNOs… we’ve gone through all of that trouble to be a single point of entry for businesses who want to communicate globally using SMS,” he says. “It’s about the failover, the reliability and not having to change suppliers or anything along that line.”

USSD is not obsolete

Despite the growth of internet-reliant messaging, USSD remains an integral part of Africa’s digital ecosystem. If anything, it’s a way for those who do not have connectivity to use everyday services like banking. In fact, it’s been reported that nine in 10 mobile money transactions in sub-Saharan Africa still flow through USSD. “It just works. It allows for two-way communication but the variety it offers is awesome,” says Van Jaarsveld. While simple USSD services give you a drop-down menu, it is also used to capture data and buy products – without the use of a website or an app. “USSD Push or NI USSD allows a company to initiate the session and send the first message to which the user can respond. With OTP, for instance, instead of sending an SMS, you can send a USSD request to a specific phone. It stays on for 40 seconds and a user can reply with an OTP within this timeframe,” he explains.

There are many smart use cases of how USSD is being used today across different industries. In agriculture, for example, USSD has been employed to provide farmers with real-time information on weather conditions, market prices for crops and agricultural best practices. “This helps farmers make informed decisions without the need for internet access,” says Van Jaarsveld. In the healthcare sector, USSD technology is employed for sending appointment reminders, delivering health information and facilitating interactive services. Across the continent, governments have adopted USSD services to offer citizens access to public services and information. Van Jaarsveld further emphasises that these services encompass checking exam results, accessing government schemes and obtaining information on public health initiatives.

For smaller businesses or start-ups that cannot afford to implement a WhatsApp channel or chatbot, USSD is an affordable, yet highly effective option. “It’s cheaper and not limited to the internet,” says Van Jaarsveld. “SMS may be picking up rapidly, but I believe we’re going to see a big uptake of USSD as well. There are a lot of new changes, which is why partnering with a company that understands changing regulations and compliances is important. Our focus is on working smarter while enhancing viability and safety in our approach.”