How Tech Is Giving People Addresses In Africa

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Written by Tom Jackson

Addresses. Everyone has them, right?

Wrong. According to the United Nations, more than 75 percent of countries have a poorly maintained addressing system or no street addressing system at all. Around the world, 4 billion are unaddressed. In Africa alone, there are 440 million people without a recorded place to call home.

This is a big deal. Without an address, you can’t be reached. You can’t receive goods, and you can’t access many crucial financial services. Lack of addressing is not an issue that can be easily addressed, taking decades to implement and costing millions.

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Until now. Tech solutions are helping to overcome these problems. Kenyan startup MPOST converts mobile phone numbers into official virtual addresses, allowing clients to receive notifications whenever they get mail through their postal addresses. After getting the message, they can collect their mail or have it delivered to them. To register, a client just has to dial a USSD code and identify themselves, with a virtual postal address costing $3.

MPOST has already hit the 40,000-user mark after partnering with the Postal Corporation of Kenya and processed over 25,000 parcels and letters.

“The uptake to date has been phenomenal, taking into consideration the registrations to date have just been by word of mouth. MPost has a retention rate of over 85 percent to date,” said Abdulaziz Omar, the company’s CEO.

people without addresses
Almost all visible rooftops have solar panels in this photo of Alexandra Township, Johannesburg, South Africa, September 2013. Photo: Dana Sanchez

This is due to the size of the problem that MPOST is tackling through tech. People have been denied the “human right” to their own postal address, Omar said.

“It is tiresome and time-consuming to keep checking mailboxes periodically to find out whether you have received any mail,” he said.

“People were also losing out on important and urgent mails that need immediate response or attention. Job offer letters, for example, might stay at the post office box for too long. For businesses it was also expensive to track and trace customers.”

Three little words

Other companies are taking a similar approach but implementing on a global scale. London-based what3words, for example, has divided the world into 3-meter-by-3-meter squares, each with its own unique three-word address. The Statue of Liberty, for example, is located at “toned.melt.ship.” This allows people to refer to in a simple way to any precise location, be it a delivery entrance, a picnic spot or a drone-landing point.

“If you are a logistics firm, a photographer, a postal service, a food delivery company or you are in the travel or navigation business, a simple way to talk about location is pretty important to you,” said what3words spokesperson Miriam Frank. “Location is at the heart of business decisions and a number of future technological shifts. And if you want to meet a friend at a festival or park, a simple way to communicate it is essential.”

This relevance has resulted in strong uptake. The company’s platform is used by more than 1,000 businesses, governments, NGOs, and individuals across 170 countries, and is integrated into car navigation systems. It can be used to deliver mail in nine countries. It is being used all over Africa in industries spanning logistics, travel, governments, automobility and humanitarian. what3words, which has its African headquarters in Johannesburg, is available in three African languages with more in the pipeline.

“In South Africa, where suburb names are duplicated across the country and postal codes cover large areas, giving an accurate delivery address can be a challenge when shopping online,” Frank said. “Imprecise and unreliable addressing has made it difficult for courier drivers to make successful and timely deliveries, and means customers often don’t get the speedy service they expect.”

iStore, the sole distributor of Apple products in Sub-Saharan Africa, uses what3words, as do companies in the hospitality industry including Eat Out, Platter’s Wine Guide and various hotels. Nonprofits are also using the location technology to help people find their way in need.

“From the Gateway Health institute combating maternal mortality rates in South Africa, to the Rhino Refugee camp of Uganda, home to 100,000 people, better addressing means people can easily be found. what3words is also being used in Malawi by the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine to help caseworkers reach remote families. what3words is also used to microfinance customers who do not have an official address in Liberia,” Frank said.