Sub-Saharan Africa's Digital Sphere

Mobile internet is beginning to reshape the economic, political and social development of the African continent, argues Nkundwe Moses Mwasaga.

The uptake of cell phones in Africa has made mobile networks the preferred communication platform. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, cell phones are pervasive in Africa, with ownership surging in countries like South Africa (89 per cent), Ghana (83 per cent) and Kenya (82 per cent), Moreover, according to a report by the International Telecommunications Union almost 90 per cent of the Continent population is covered by a mobile-cellular signal,.

That means that African countries are getting ready to benefit from the fast-growing mobile internet sector, and beginning to access improved broadband internet using the 4G network, which is capable of providing services like cloud services, smart TV/ over-the-top content solutions, Video on Demand, IP Television and Web Television. 4G is sometimes referred to as 4G Long Term Evolution (4G LTE). Within the next five years about fifty African countries will deploy 4G network.

African countries are also preparing for the advantages that the fast-growing mobile internet sector will provide. According to GSMA – an umbrella body for mobile operators – smartphone adoption is accelerating as device costs decline. Sub-Saharan countries are set to add more than 400 million new smartphone connections by 2020. This will contribute substantially to economic and social development across the Sub-Saharan region. (The GSMA also thinks that 2 million jobs were directly supported by mobile networks in 2014, and expects there will be 2.7 million jobs by 2020). Mobile internet penetration was reported at 23% in 2015 and is predicted to reach 37% in 2020. That can deliver digital inclusion to those who are in unconnected populations: mobile networks are able to deliver financial inclusion to populations without access to banking, with 135 live financial services across the Sub-Saharan region as of December 2014. Mobile networks also deliver innovative new services and applications with the number of Machine to Machine (M2M) connections expected to reach 30 million by 2020.

According to a Pew Research Center study in 2014, adult cell phone owners have many different uses for mobile networks. They consist of the following: sending text message (80%), taking pictures or video (53%), making or receiving payments (30%), getting political news (21%), accessing social networks (19%), getting health information (17%), looking or applying for jobs (14%) and getting consumer information (14%). It is evident that sending text messages and taking pictures or videos are the most popular activities among mobile owners.

One of the most exciting areas is in mobile banking, which exists in almost all Sub-Saharan African countries. In 2014, the number of registered mobile banking accounts per capita was highest in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Other countries that have had a relatively high mobile banking uptake are Zimbabwe, Botswana, Rwanda, Lesotho, Zambia, Madagascar, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, Cameroon, Mauritius, Malawi, South Africa, Nigeria, Gabon and Namibia.

As it is everywhere else in the world, mobile networks have been a platform for innovation in social networking and messaging apps in the Sub-Saharan region. Platforms like Mxit, 2go and How Far, and entertainment apps like Simfy Africa, Spinlet, iRokoTV, SOLO and iROKING. Little known outside Sun Saharan Africa, apps are developing exciting new apayment netowrks in MFIS Microinsurance: Loan & insurance disbursements & repayments; education registration & fees payments; health bill payments; utility and media services, transport, retail, employer salaries, agrictulure, government tax collection, pensions, and more. Mobile payments systems really are transforming the continent.

All parts of Sub-Saharan Africa are gearing up and finding creative ways to use modern technology. Social media applications are securely used in different sectors, such as business, entertainment, civic education and development work. Africa has a strong knowledge-sharing culture, thus social media platforms can be used to raise issues pertinent to Africa. Moreover, such platforms can enable African voices to be heard in global forums. Ordinary Africans can raise their voice on important issues like climate change adaptation. An example of this is a social media platform called Africa Talks Climate, which is a major research and communications partnership between the BBC World Service Trust and British Council. Africa Talks Climate (ATC) is the most extensive report published to date on the public’s understanding of climate change in Africa. Another example is Kabissa, a network connecting people and organizations working in Africa for peer learning and information sharing. In the political arena, social media has the potential to strengthen participation and the political power of citizens. In some ways we’ve been able to leapfrog – benefitting from the lack of existing sunk infrastructure costs and quickly adopt the very latest tech.

But of course, there are challenges. Africa’s upward trend in the use of social media is even more striking given the low number of Africans connected to the internet using the high speed connection technologies e.g. 4G LTE. Thus, the uptake of 4G should be accelerated as this will help to overcome many hurdles that Africans face in trying to get online. Statistics on internet usage in Africa show that usage is significantly up. One in ten were estimated to be an internet user in 2010 whereas in 1998 it was more like one in 5,000. This low usage rate in 1998 made Africa the continent with the lowest penetration rate. Among the many reasons for this are the scarcity and prohibitive costs of broadband connections, which is the fastest means of accessing internet, and the limited number of computing devices that were in use. The widespread availability of mobile phones means that mobile internet can reach tens of millions more than the wired web. Mobile internet is beginning to reshape the economic, political and social development of the continent.

The mobile industry is reshaping the economy. In 2014 the mobile industry contributed 5.7% of the GDP ($102 billion) and we expect this to reach to 8% of the GDP ($166 billion) in 2020. This presents its own challenge in terms of how inclusive and flexible regulatory frameworks are for the mobile industry, as well as how inclusive government policies are and how competitive the mobile industry is. Government should make inclusive policies that will enable the acceleration of smartphone adoption in Sub-Saharan Africa.