Offline Apps

Cuba’s offline app sharing culture is unprecedented. Cubans have adapted to the lack of telecommunications infrastructure and the lack of connectivity to create their own way of sharing information through phones. They have created their own offline mobile Internet.
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Two Cubans sharing information through their phones. Photo by Ana Carolina Diaz

In terms of mobile telecommunications infrastructure, Cuba has voice and messaging (SMS) services in place, but is lacking mobile Internet. While many Cubans own smartphones, they are unable to use the services that have become ubiquitous throughout the rest of the world, such as Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram. The actual Cuban Internet mobile network is equivalent to what the rest of the world had back in 2006, when phones were generally used only for voice calls, text messaging, and multimedia messaging. However, ETECSA offers a mobile email service for smartphones called Nauta, which uses 2G technology.
Increasing mobile and smartphone penetration over the last several years has played an essential role in the development of an offline app sharing culture. At the moment, Cuba has 3.3 million mobile users. Access to technology combined with the lack of actual Internet infrastructure has pushed Cubans to create solutions that do not require Internet connectivity. In order to access information and services that the rest of the world downloads through the Internet or mobile data, Cubans use their Bluetooth or WiFi connection to share apps, videos, music, films, TV series, and more. Taking advantage of the deep social networks present on the island, Cubans share information from phone to phone with friends, family, colleagues, and even tourists. When Cubans meet other Cubans or even tourists they will ask to see and share their apps.
According to some sources, the most important app in Cuba is called Zapya. This app allows Cubans to share information more easily through Bluetooth connections by creating “groups” in which two or more phones can connect, allowing them to select and share files between their phones with a user-friendly interface.

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Zapya application interface for selecting apps to share. Photo by Mariela Machado

Some of the most popular offline apps developed in other countries and used in Cuba at the moment are the following:
  • Zapya: facilitates the sharing of apps and multimedia information between phones through Bluetooth connectivity
  • Running apps: uses the phone’s GPS, which works without Mobile Internet, to track where and how many miles a person runs
  • IMO: facilitates video chatting in low connectivity settings, replacing Skype, which is blocked in Cuba (another related app is
  • Dietista personal: allows a virtual nutritionist to provide tips and best practices for a healthy diet.
  • JChat: functions as an offline chat that works through WiFi connectivity.
  • Solar charger: charges phones through solar energy

Carlos, a chef at a tourist stop between Havana and Cienfuegos, is 50 years old and stores 16G of apps on his Samsung mini S3. He has become very dependent on his phone, mirroring the technology culture outside of Cuba. He tracks the speed and distance of his morning runs through his phone’s GPS. He watches movies on his phone to keep him awake during the night shift. He makes friends at the tourist stop by sharing apps, then brings them back to his family and friends in his home town. The offline sharing culture works through these exchanges.
Passing apps to another phone using Zapya. Photo by: Mariela Machado

El Paquete also facilitates app sharing, since it includes a folder with new apps and monthly updates of the most common apps in the Cuban market.
Cuba has seen a rise in app developers over the last few years. These Cuban innovators develop apps that are adapted to the Cuban context, meaning that they work entirely offline. Apps require certain features to function properly, such as continual updates. App developers must send new and updated information for both the database of information that each app holds and the general functions of the app (for example, an adapted code against viruses).
There are many ways in which these apps can be updated offline: (1) Nauta email, (2) El Paquete, which has a folder full of new apps and monthly updates of the most popular Cuban apps, and (3) WiFi. One of the best examples is an app called Ke Hay Pa Hoy that updates through Nauta email or through WiFi connectivity. Updating apps through email and through a 2G connection is a unique Cuban innovation that has not been seen throughout the rest of the world.

Ke Hay Pa Hoy email request update. Photo by Mariela Machado

Some of the most common apps developed by Cubans and adapted to the lack of infrastructure include:
  • Ke Hay Pa Hoy: showcases all the cultural events happening in Havana. This app is powered by the Ministry of Culture (El Ministerio de Cultura). It has 6,000 users in Havana.
  • aPlus Saldo: facilitates the transfer of phone credit from phone to phone
  • A la mesa: locates the best restaurants in Cuba (similar to Yelp)
  • ConoceCuba: offers updated information and maps of restaurants, hospitals, hotels, gyms, hairdressers, and more all around Cuba.
  • LaChopi: allows users to view the ads for sale or purchase of items throughout Cuba (similar to Revolico and eBay). Also included in El paquete.
  • Directorio ETECSA: provides a database of ETECSA’s users with telephone numbers, addresses, and ID numbers. This allows app users to identify incoming calls.

Learning from Cuba’s offline app culture

App sharing in this way is happening all over Cuba. Since it does not depend on infrastructure or available connectivity, even rural areas are able to connect. Cuba’s offline app culture is something that unconnected parts of the world could learn from.
Sharing apps through wireless technologies such as merge networks (WiFi or Bluetooth) could be economically beneficial for users and potentially favorable to telecommunications companies by maximizing broadband use. Instead of downloading one video five times, users could store and share that video, using less resources for one download.
Using social networks in countries with less individualistic societies could be very beneficial in enabling ICTs to reach everyone, even in places that lack the infrastructure. For example, the offline sharing culture could be applied in rural parts of Africa to share health information from phone to phone. The Cuban offline sharing culture could benefit the entire world, leading by example to strengthen equality in new digital societies.

Written by: Mariela Machado Fantacchiotti Edited by: Laura Lehman and Emily Sylvia