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Ugandan student makes millions from developing apps

posted 4 Jul 2012, 06:29 by Mpelembe   [ updated 4 Jul 2012, 06:30 ]

Abdu Sekalala is a Ugandan IT student and a self made billionaire whose mobile applications have rivaled some of the world's most popular platforms in downloads.

Twenty two-year-old Abdu Sekalala is a Ugandan billionaire. The Computing and Information Technology student at Makerere University in Kampala, develops mobile applications.
So far he has developed nine internationally recognized applications including Wordbook -- a dictionary app with a "word of the day" capability that includes definitions, examples and synonyms.

The app makes him about 1.25 US dollars per download from Nokia's Ovi store and has been downloaded over 300,000 times, earning the young entrepreneur around 375, 000 USD (907 million Ugandan Shillings) so far.

"I have about four themes and five applications or the other way round five applications, four themes. Now the themes are basically to customize the you-I of your phone, the way your phone appears, the screens, the transitions, the colours and the apps, we have word book which is a dictionary and the Tutu translate which is basically a translator and then there is world sports which is a sports application for soccer fans," he said.

Sekalala caught his big break when mobile phone company Nokia held a training session in Uganda last year to help software developers expand their skills in building applications.

He went through the course and when he developed his own application, Nokia were willing to adapt it for the online applications store, Ovi.

Nokia shares roughly halved last year as the company struggled to keep up with the pace of smartphone development while also losing ground at the cheaper end of the market to Asian brands.

But officials at the company say that their strategy to focus on the next billion customers will put their products in more hands than anyone else, thus giving developers like Sekalala a wider market at a time when the demand for applications to access the internet is at a peak.

Agatha Gikunda is the Ecosystem services and Applications manager for East Africa, based in Nairobi. She says developers like Sekalala have a unique opportunity through Nokia to access an international market and make money either from advertising or from revenue share per download. Sekalala makes money from both.

"So what Nokia offers developers as far as moneytising is we let them make the decision on how they want to make money. So one of the ways that they can actually make money is they put it on the store for free so that consumers around the world can download it for for free but they make money through advertisements, so one of the apps that Abdu created, that's what he incorporated so he put in advertising. So advertisers around the world pop up their ads within that application so he makes money from that and that money is entirely his," said Gikunda.

The highest downloads for Sekalala's app, Wordbook were in Asia.

Currently the Ugandan developer teaches IT and computing classes alongside being a student himself. The University runs a project called iLabs which gives IT students a chance to incubate their ideas and work with mentors to develop new innovations.

Sekalala also owns two companies that specialize in mobile and website development.

Asked what was he thought to be his greatest achievement, Sekalala said the 'Uganda Theme' -- a free download for mobile phones which at one point was the third most downloaded app in the world.

"The Uganda theme for Nokia: I published that app late last year like in December and the first time in the first week of its launch it became number three in the the most downloaded things in the world, that is when I felt like this is my number one of everything that I developed, this is it, this is what is going to make my mark," he said.

Africa has the world's fastest growing telecoms market and analysts say internet based mobile solutions are helping boost development and growth on the continent.

It has many lower-end users who only make calls and send text messages, but its increasingly young and tech-savvy population is buying higher-end handsets that are growing internet usage across Africa.

In Uganda, total mobile subscribers in Uganda surged to 16 million last year, up from an estimated 13 million in 2010.

Gikunda said there is great potential for app business in Africa because companies are looking for new ideas to engage consumers, and these ideas may not always be generated within an institution.

"So Africa is definitely the next frontier, developers here have a huge opportunity that they have never ever had before to create businesses that require very little start up capital. They are already trained in development so we then take then take the next step to train them in the development for a mobile phone and all you need is your computer and your idea, you publish your application for free, you select which countries around the world and that is it," she said.

One of Sekalala's latest applications, the 101 Romantic SMS, he says -- is a sign that applications have a place in almost all aspects of life. The app generates poems and love messages that users can send out via SMS.

"For me to show my girlfriend that I love her its more convenient, I don't have to sit down and take 30 minutes to think about one massage but that doesn't mean I don't love her, I love her but you know that the time it may take me a long time and the creativity, I may not have the same creativity all the time," said Ronnie Odoki, a student in Kampala.

Sekalala makes at least 100 US dollars a day from his apps. He says he will not look for job when he finishes his degree, instead he will continue developing applications.