Innovating postal services in the digital age

Rwanda’s national postal service – Iposita – will be marking 95 years this month since opening its doors in September 1922 in Kigali.

Though the service remains excellent, instantaneous messaging through email or SMS is an obvious sign of how times have changed in the digital age.

However, though delivery of letters – snail mail – has been in steady decline, postal services anywhere remain relevant especially in the delivery of packages and other registered mail. And, in so far as delivering a package requires an easily identifiable physical address, there also have been attempts at innovative digital solutions by start-ups such as What3Words.

During the second edition of the African TED Talks in Arusha, Tanzania, last month, What3Words demonstrated how it is possible to give each and every person on the planet a unique physical address.

Its practical appeal was understandable. Unlike in much of the West where streets are planned and named and all premises residential or otherwise are numbered enabling mail delivery at your door step, the model is more centralised in Africa.

A subscriber somewhere on the continent is assigned a numbered box at the post office in her locality – usually the shopping centre or town – that she periodically visits to check or retrieve mail.

The vast majority do not, for one reason or another (including cost), have a post office box.

Of necessity, however, institutions have postal addresses. This means that most people in rural Africa receive their mail either through the chief of their village, the church or the nearest school.

If you are pastoralist moving from place to place in search of pasture or water for your livestock, it may take weeks or months before you receive your mail.

What3Words attempts to offer a solution. It has divided the entire Earth’s surface area, including land and ocean, to 57 trillion squares measuring three-by-three metres.

Each individual square, no matter where on the planet, has been assigned a distinctive address expressed in three words. For instance, a spot within the Car Wash nyama choma joint in Kigali is “examples.tidal.nightfall”.

The three-word addresses are conversions of the numerical GPS latitude, longitude coordinates.

Initially in English, this has been made possible by combining 40,000 dictionary words which can yield up to 64 trillion combinations. To make it more inclusive the system has now been translated into 14 languages.

The system has already been adopted by the Nigerian and Ivory Coast postal services, among some organisations such as in South Africa to reach some of the most marginalised.

It nevertheless has not generated much enthusiasm elsewhere. First, it does not feature a free or open database to align an address with a GPS coordinate the way Google’s Street View does.

Note, however, that Street View is only selectively available, as are other open sources such as openaddresses.io which are not as nimble, are urban-based and only provide street names, house numbers and postal codes combined with geographic coordinates mostly in the US and Europe and some parts of Asia.

Subject to intellectual property rights, What3Words is in it for the money. It is, therefore, a middleman with a roadmap in databases that policymakers may find useful to utilise to further their nations’ or institutions’ reach in far flung and marginal localities.

For this and other reasons, this middleman aspect has led the model being dismissed as risky to rely on for public utility purposes.

The example is given of how the British Government auctioned off the entirety of its mail service including the copyright to the Royal Mail’s postcode registry. Whether it sold off the database by accident is moot. The UK is now being forced to spend millions of pounds to rebuild an open version of the exact same postcode registry that it sold off hardly three years ago.

As for Iposita marking its 95th Anniversary, in addition to its express mail and courier service (EMS) locally and internationally, may it harness the digital solutions already available including the mobile phone.

In Kenya for example, the national postal service recently introduced a product it is calling Mpost. While the innovation is trying to catch up, Mpost allows you to make your mobile number to be a formal postal address and alerts you via SMS when you receive a letter or package for collection at your preferred post office.