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African app company that trumped Apple to launch first black emoticons

Celebrities had urged Apple to release racially diverse emojis

Teo Kermeliotis | 5/1/2014, 9:10 a.m.
The move came after celebrities such as Miley Cyrus and Tahj Mowry petitioned Apple to update its emoji characters. Oju Africa had been working on their version since 2012, but decided to release them early after the hashtag #EmojiEthnicityUpdate started trending on Twitter. Courtesy Oju Africa

— As in most aspects of life, timing in business is essential.

About one month ago, following complaints by celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Tahj Mowry over a lack a racial diversity in Apple's emojis (the cartoon-like icons used to spruce up text messages), a company executive told MTV that the tech giant was working to update its set of characters.

The news quickly had Twitter buzzing as people joined the #EmojiEthnicityUpdate discussions -- but that wasn't the end of the story.

Without wasting any time, a Mauritius-based app company called Oju Africa announced a few hours later that it had already tackled the lack of racial diversity by introducing its own set of Afro emoticons on Google Play Store.

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Credit: Courtesy Oju Africa

Oju Africa was officially launched at event in Johannesburg, South Africa, shown above, and has so far had 16,000 downloads, mainly from the U.S.

The company said it had been working on the icons since late 2012 and was planning to officially launch them on April 10. Yet, the social media hype after Apple's response prompted them to speed up their release date -- trumping market-leading companies in the process.

"Within a couple of hours of seeing that, we put our press release out and we already claimed ownership -- that we have actually developed this already," chief executive Alpesh Patel told CNN. "It's very important for us, as a small African company, to make it known to the world that we were the first to do it."

The emoticons are designed to work on all Android platforms, and will shortly be available on iOS. The company, a division of mobile devices brand Mi-Fone, says that so far there've been more than 16,000 downloads, the majority of which have come from the United States.

CNN's African Start-Up caught up with Ugandan-born Patel to find out what's been the response to the Afro emoticons, his plans for the future and why he wants to see Oju on the packet of cereal boxes.

CNN: Why did you decide to launch the Afro emoticons?

Alpesh Patel: it's something that we thought about since late 2012. We decided to do it because of our core business, Mi-Fone. We had a look at the offerings in the market and said what can we do to make our phones more African; what can we do with the software, because all of the phones are kind of looking the same now.

We actually looked at it and said "you know what, there's actually a lack of black smilies" -- every phone that we looked at had yellow smilies so we said "why can't we have some smilies, or some emoticons, that are more relevant to the people that we supply to?"

The reason we launched it three weeks ago is because of this petition from Miley Cyrus and MTV -- petition to Apple CEO complaining about the lack of racially diverse emoticons and Apple said "yes, we're going to look into it." But within a couple of hours of seeing that, we put our press release out and already claimed ownership -- that we have actually developed this already. We're the first ones in the world to do it and people should work with us and use our emoticons because they represent people of color in a very nice way, they're not derogatory at all.