On the display of 11-year-old Kanini's mobile phone, a matatu - one of those notorious Kenyan share taxis - is roaring along a straight road. The yellow-striped minibus passes a stop sign and more cash is clocked up on the taxi meter. "Cool" says Kanini. "You have to dodge all the other road users - trucks, motorbikes, old cars." Then, all of sudden, another minibus appears, a black one. The game ends - in a crash!
The mobile game is Ma3 Racer. "Matatus here in Nairobi drive like maniacs anyway," said Mwaura Kikore who had the idea for it. Kikore is one of the co-founders of Planet Rackus, the company that developed Kenya's first gaming apps.
The first version of Ma3 Racer (tatu means three in Kiswahili), with low resolution graphics for basic mobile phones, was released three years ago. The game's developers didn't have very high expectations of it. "If the game had been downloaded 10,000 times in the first year, we would have thought that great," Kikore said. "But then we reached that target in the first three days. In the first year we had notched up over a million downloads."
Preserving African culture
Basic mobile phones are common in Kenya. 80 percent of the population uses them because Kenya does not possess an extensive, reliable landline network. The same is true elsewhere in East Africa. The mobile games market is booming."We're counting on it," said Daniel Okalany, head of Kola Studios, a game development company in Uganda."We are hoping that smartphones will sell faster than all other mobile phones. That's why we are making apps for mobile phones and not for PCs or the Internet," he said.
Kola's games include Mosquito Rush in which you have to swat some rather aggressive insects. They also offer apps that simulate traditional African card games. "We are helping to preserve African culture" said Okalany. "Everything that isn't digitalized these days gets quickly forgotten. That's why we want to preserve these games."
Kikore said African games differ slightly from their European or American counterparts. "That doesn't necessarily mean that these games are just for Africans. They have universal appeal. But we have African heroes, the settings are African or involve Africans in non-African settings," he said.
At the moment it is not profitable to develop games solely for the African market. Most Africans cannot afford even the more inexpensive smartphones, let alone gaming apps for these devices. App stores are international anyway. The market for apps is worth billions of dollars (euros) and the competition is tough. "Nobody on this continent can earn his living from developing games. We all have day jobs and we develop games when we have time," said Kikore.
Kikore has a job in an advertising agency. But he doesn't want to stay there forever. He is working on an adventure game. It will have ten levels, 3D graphics and be sophisticated enough so that gamers will be prepared to pay to use it.