When Old School Rules – Why USSD Applications Are Still Rocking Campaigns In Africa

USSD applications. Not a lot of people actually know what these are. In a world where the Internet of Things, smartphones, smart buildings and smart pretty-much-everything-else dominate, it’s easy to forget that in many areas, particularly in Africa, this decades-old technology is still widely used. What was once simply a way to check the airtime balance on your phone has grown into a multi-functional channel for a huge variety of applications and initiatives.

Mobile service providers make prolific use of USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) applications for internal functions such as promotions, balance checks, data bundle purchases and airtime top-ups. Banks have also grasped the value of this platform to build mobile banking applications for thousands of their customers who don’t own a smartphone and don’t have access to the Internet. This is where the true value of USSD lies, particularly in Africa: it works on just about any phone, anywhere.

Africa as a continent has well over 80 percent mobile penetration, but only 18 percent Internet penetration. As a result, smartphones are relatively rare, and features phones dominate the market.

The Rise In The Development Of USSD Applications

Until fairly recently, developing USSD applications was something only professionally trained network engineers could do. Because of this, it was only really the banks and larger corporates who could afford the equipment and engineering expertise required. Today, however, the technology is far simpler and more accessible, meaning most developers now find it relatively easy to build apps for USSD. As a result, its popularity and reach have gone way beyond the wildest dreams of its original designers.

The reason behind its incredible, and somewhat unexpected, success lies in its simplicity. Unlike smartphone apps, USSD applications are supported by all phones and do not rely on the complicated processing hardware required by demanding platforms such as iOS and Android.

How Does USSD Work?

USSD provides a real-time connection between you and your mobile operator. It allows you to send and receive data by dialling a specific short code (usually five numbers). This unlocks an on-screen display menu, which you can then navigate using the keys on your phone. Unlike smartphone apps, you can access USSD applications with non-smartphone or smartphone, meaning your message reaches a vastly wider group of people. Another great thing about USSD apps is that they run on the network, not on your device. This means they don’t have to be installed onto your phone – a huge plus for features phones with limited storage space. USSD applications are instantly available to every subscriber the moment they’re deployed to a network.

This unbeatable accessibility and reach have seen USSD technology used in an incredible number of innovative and successful campaigns throughout Africa.

Social Campaigns Using USSD Applications

There are obviously too many to mention here, but it is worth taking note of some of the most impactful campaigns to run in recent years:


This USSD application was pioneered in Kenya. It enables small farmers to request information about crop prices via text. It also lets them connect with other farmers in their area, as well as potential buyers, making it easier to sell their produce.

Enza Education

This incredible app uses USSD technology to deliver valuable educational support material to children in a number of African countries. The results of this campaign have been phenomenal to date.


This USSD application helps reunite refugees with their families in war-ravaged areas throughout Africa.

Marketing Campaigns Using USSD Applications

South Africa has seen a great number of successful marketing campaigns driven solely by USSD technology. Here are a few of the best examples:

Hungry Lion

This popular chicken fast food franchise launched its “Lucky Bucket” campaign in 2014 with two main objectives: To get customers to increase the size of their orders, and to bring in new customers. The campaign was simple: When you spotted a Lucky Bucket (in store, on TV, in print and on social media), you simply used your mobile phone (no matter what kind you had) to dial and send in the unique code printed on the bucket. This entered you into a sweepstakes where you could win airtime and Hungry Lion vouchers. The campaign resulted in a 37 percent increase in brand engagement, and sales growth in the double-figures.


This isiZulu language daily magazine decided to increase its circulation with a mobile gaming campaign, run over USSD, using the mass appeal of the Premier Soccer League. Over a period of seven months, people were asked to make predictions for game results and overall league positions. The winners received a number of prizes. The end result: an increase in sales of between 4 000 and 4 500 per day!

Aerial Washing Powder

Aerial’s amazing Impossible Made Possible campaign invited South African women to use USSD technology to send in their stories of how they were helping to make a difference in their community. Aerial selected the best stories, and the women concerned were invited to tell their stories to the nation on the Mose Waka TV Show. The campaign generated a response rate of 300 percent over target, and it was the only South African campaign to be commended at the DMA Global Echo Awards in New Orleans. It was runner-up, worldwide, for the Best Use Of Mobile Award.

Cellfind is a leading mobile technology solutions company providing tailored Mobile applications, Location-based services, Aggregation solutions, Mobile Applications and Value Added Services to a wide range of clients throughout Southern Africa. Talk to us today about how we can help you set up and run your next USSD application-driven campaign.

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