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Why localised niche apps are a gold rush waiting to happen


Last weekend I downloaded the smartphone application Video Call Santa. The app allows you to set it up so Father Christmas phones when your child is with you. It’s really lovely, and done in a way that will make young children believe Santa is really phoning them to find out what they want for Christmas. Our two-year old just stood mouth agape, but I imagine older kiddies would love it.

It is, of course, an American voice on the other end of the video call, which got me thinking about how awesome it would be if we could have our very own Father Christmas, with a homebred South African accent phoning our kids.

It’s this lack of localised content that first inspired Nick De La Hunt, senior specialist: enterprise mobility & online at VodacomBusiness, to develop the FingerTalk app. When his wife told him that she was interested in learning to sign but could not find anything on South African Sign Language he was surprised to see that there really were no learning aids available online. The app was developed using the content of the book Finger Talk: South African Sign Language (SASL) Dictionary by Sue Howard.

The app was originally released in December 2015 as a paid-for version only. But, during 2016, FingerTalk has received an overhaul, with new functionalities included, which, says De La Hunt, has made for a very positive reception by its users.

“Sadly people don’t like spending money on apps, even niche content like FingerTalk,” adds De la Hunt. “We’ve had to shift the model to include a free version of the app. The model now relies on marketing of the free app to drive high downloads and then advertising of the paid app within the free version to help paid downloads.”


Examples of the FingerTalk user interface.

De La Hunt says that there is a roadmap for further development and functionality that he would like to include in FingerTalk but this all hinges on the success of the free version in driving downloads of the paid-for app.

“The jury is still out on whether this model works. The app has only been launched in very limited circles with no real strategic marketing done yet,” he explains. “I’m hopeful that downloads will increase once that takes off. At the moment we are working on getting the app taken up by SAPS and the Department of Basic Education to be included in the respective curricula.”

Apart from FingerTalk and the vision De La Hunt has for the app, he says that he is too busy being a new dad at the moment but that there are a few ideas he wants to investigate to determine their market potential and effort involved.

“South Africa has so much opportunity it’s frightening! Any of your successful apps on the Google Play Store or Apple AppStore can be localised for SA. All a developer needs to do is to think about education apps,” says De La Hunt. “As an example, there are many apps that teach toddlers what a horse looks like and how to pronounce “horse” but none that teach that in all 11 of South Africa’s official languages.”

De La Hunt says that this is one of his banked ideas, but he will even show you how to develop the app if you’re keen; so here is his experience and knowledge on becoming a successful, well-received app developer for a niche market.

How to be an app developer


It’s easy for users to search for and locate words or terms they want to learn the sign for. Once the word has been located the correct sign is illustrated.

How does someone become an app developer?

You need to really want to build apps. The process is so frustrating at times, that it is just not worth it if you don’t love doing it.

You must also remember that there is no real prescribed method or how-to. If app development is all you want and you are not interested in learning everything IT-related then teach yourself using Google.

I Googled mobile app development strategies and had given each one a great deal of thought before picking what worked for me. I decided cross-platform hybrid apps work better for me as I don’t have an IT background and really am too lazy to learn the operating system language for each platform. I also wanted to keep maintenance as short and easy as possible, which complemented my hybrid approach.

What school subjects and tertiary education are best?

In terms of school any subjects that allow you to follow the technical path of development and IT. I also think maths is a non-negotiable; it doesn’t have to be higher grade but you need to understand arithmetic.

Your tertiary education all depends on what you want to achieve. Web development courses will do you fine if you are only interested in mobile apps. But if you’re interested in creating new disruptive technologies, or pioneering a new platform, then you’ll need to study something that allows you to understand how these technologies work.

But again, it’s not all about studying. You can do this all in your own time with a PC and Google. I have a marketing academic background and I was a copywriter in the advertising industry. I never formally studied IT or app development. I developed my interest in field and learned all I had to from Google.

Yes, it helps that I had jobs that were in the web space where I learned a lot about web technologies such as HTML, CSS and JavaScript, but you can learn those anywhere on the web, for free. You can learn all of app development for free, online. You just have to want to.

What the local app market looks like


The FingerTalk app is a community orientated application aimed specifically at the deaf community

Are there tons of apps we need developed specifically for the local market, or is it saturated?

There is a significant number of opportunities for South African developers. If you can localise something for South Africa, then you’ll do fine, as long as you have a financial model that allows users to download your app for free. Large download numbers only exist on free apps, unless you have seriously niche content.

At the heart of it all your app needs to have the right content. A fancy app, that uses all the latest technology means nothing if users get bored with it, or don’t benefit from it. Your app doesn’t even have to look good, but if it solves a need, you’re made.

How does app marketing work?

Your marketing approach needs to be very strategic. Simply placing an app on the App Stores means nothing. There are millions of apps and even more users and none of those users have time to go look for your app without knowing about it.

As an example, FingerTalk was marketed via channels that spoke with its audience. It’s an app for the deaf community, so thus features on shows like DTV on SABC3 was a great help. Partnering with institutions such as DeafSA etc also adds great value, and then via deaf schools and government, even corporates as part of their CSI programmes.

Facebook is also an amazing marketing tool as their advertising platform allows you to target nearly any type of group of users you can imagine. Most of FingerTalk’s downloads have come from Facebook advertising campaigns.

What does it cost to feature an app on the various stores?

The app stores require an annual developers’ licence of anywhere between R250 (Google Play) to R1,000 (Apple iTunes AppStore), and then they take a 30% commission on your sales. Google Play however currently does not allow South African developers to create merchant accounts and charge for their apps. I had to go another route to get around this, by setting up a RAK company in Dubai and basing my developer licence with Google from there.

What happens to intellectual property when making your app available on the various platforms?

Nothing, the stores are merely a channel for you to sell on the various platforms. Just stick to the terms and conditions regarding safe and non-offensive content.

Most valuable lessons from the two-plus years spent developing FingerTalk?


FingerTalk offers a fun and interactive way for users to check their progress and knowledge – the FingerTalk Quiz

It’s hard. Very hard. As a newbie it’s even harder, as you’re learning to develop as well as trying to pick strategy and so on. The biggest lesson I’ve learned though is to choose a commercial model that drives free downloads and monetising the app’s content and to have the correct content.

Your app is all about content, whether it’s a game, a book or an app that solves a problem. It has to engage the user and keep them coming back for more. We live in a time where people want instant gratification. I myself don’t waste time on an app if it doesn’t solve my need, whatever that need may be.

Bottom line is, you have to hit your mark, and hit your audience. And keep learning! It’s not possible to know everything about app development, so keep learning, as much as you can.

I’ve also learned that hybrid apps are the best way to go if your app doesn’t require massive processing power. It’s cheaper and faster to build that way. You write code once and deploy to multiple platforms.

I am open to arguments against this approach, but it will take some convincing to change my view. Native development has its place, but for an app that connects with a server for content, does some processing and sending back of information/data, hybrid is the way to go.

Download the FingerTalk – SASL Dictionary App: Google Play or Apple iTunes AppStore


Mariette Steynberg is a qualified economist with a post-graduate diploma in financial planning. She has enjoyed working on holistic financial plans for clients in various stages of life, as well as a development economist assessing the socioeconomic impacts of new developments. When she is not working, Mariette enjoys parenting her quirky, delightful toddler girl. Cloth diapering, Eskimo kisses and the importance of reading to your child are all causes close to her heart. Mariette is passionate about financial education and hopes to use the experience she has gained to share knowledge with HomeTimes’ readership. Her goal is to provide information that is implementable by everyone.

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