Jana Mobile creating a new currency for emerging markets

(Image via Jana Mobile)
(Image via Jana Mobile)

I’ve heard Jana Mobile described as many things: a mobile ad platform, a new marketing framework, an organization changing the lives of people in emerging markets like India and Nigeria. However, the truly best way to describe the company, which you don’t hear too often, is that Jana is the catalyst for a new global currency.Jana, the Boston-based advertising and marketing platform that rewards users in emerging markets, is, in the words of founder and chief executive Nathan Eagle, “at the right place at the right time.”

Although luck could be a factor for Jana, plenty of hard work  went into building the company’s mobile platform, which lets users in emerging markets earn mobile airtime credits by consuming various kinds of branded content. The company has built one of the most creative new models for global advertising, to the point that Publicis Groupe, among the world’s largest advertising firms, has invested heavily in the company and its founder Maurice Lévy sits on Jana’s board of directors (the only other company besides Publicis for which Lévy does so).

From Public Health to Mobile Minutes

Eagle, a Fulbright scholar who did his undergrad at Stanford, went on to be a research scientist at MIT after finishing his PhD at the school. With a background in data analytics, specifically data coming from mobile operators, he went on to work on a few interesting projects at Everest Base Camp and in Africa as mobile was emerging as a new medium for communication.

But, while working on a project with Kenyan Ministry of Health to track blood level supplies, Eagle realized the potential for the exchange of airtime. The project tracked local blood supply levels throughout rural Kenya by having nurses text their levels to a home office. It was a success at first, but most of the nurses stopped sending in data. “It failed because of a fundamental lack of insight into the price of text messages,” Eagle said.

Eagle said the price of a text message represents a substantial fraction of a rural nurse’s base wage. “To ask them to send us this data everyday was asking them to take a pay cut,” he said.

Because he was also doing work for MIT to analyze East African mobile operators data, Eagle had access to the backend billing system of virtually every operator in the area. He says he wrote code that credited the rural nurses’ mobile accounts with a small denomination of airtime in exchange for the data. “When we did that,” he said, “a switch flipped. Suddenly everyone wanted to re-engage with the platform.”

Eagle added that event the mobile operators were excited “because instead of taking money out that woman’s pocket who makes $10 a day, they could take money out of the Kenyan Ministry of Health’s pocket or the CDC and on and on.”

“What’s exciting is that we’re at the center of overlapping circles,” Eagle said. The massive growth in emerging markets, like Brazil, Nigeria, Indonesia, and China, has lead companies to put huge amounts of money into marketing and advertising. Additionally, smart phone prices, particularly for Android devices, have dropped significantly in markets with a growing middle class.

“Millions of people everyday are getting online because of these pricepoints,” Eagle said. “It’s a gold rush at the moment trying to figure out how to start engaging and connecting with those consumers.”

Offering these customers mobile airtime credits in return for watching advertisements or engaging with content in some way, has become, in Eagle’s words,  “exactly like a currency.”

This is part of the reason why Publicis and local venture capital firm Spark Capital, among others, are so attracted to Jana’s model.

Currency for an Emerging World

Todd Dagres of Spark Capital refers to Jana’s approach as a new engagement model. “It happens to be a good one because in emerging markets, airtime can be like cash, there’s really no difference between airtime and cash,” Dagres said.

“When people get paid, the first thing they do is top up their airtime, and the second thing they do is eat,” he added.

In emerging markets, Dagres said, “people’s mobile phones are their freedom, their content, and their social connection. [Their cell phone] is liberating and probably the most important thing that they own.”

Dagres added that he was initially excited by Jana because it didn’t seem like a Boston company — it seemed more like a West Coast company that happened to be in Boston.

“It’s not that often, unfortunately, that you meet companies in Boston that go after such an audacious opportunity,” he said.

For Eagle, success for Jana is how much money the company can put back into people’s pockets. “The mission for this company is to re-direct that $200 billion that is going into the pockets of people who own billboards, or radio stations or television shows, into the pockets of the consumers that these are trying to reach,” he said.

Audacious, yes. Impossible, no.

Dennis Keohane was a Senior Staff Writer for BetaBoston.
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