Africa’s Mobile Explosion

Guest Post by Simon Andersson, development economist.

Where is mobile phone coverage most important? If we accept the idea that the importance of mobile technology can only be properly understood as relative to other levels of infrastructure development, then the answer must be Africa. The importance of mobile phone technology in Africa is derived from its enabling effects; as the West is converting pre-existing systems to mobile technology, Africa is building systems through mobile technology. In Africa, the mobile phone is the basis for development, rather than its result.

In September 2011, I wrote my master’s thesis on the mobile phone revolution in Africa. At the time, the most optimistic estimates from the previous year put the number of phones on the continent at around 505 million. This number was significantly revised even as I was writing my dissertation, and market growth has continued unabated through the recession of the developed world. A 2012 report by Deloitte for GSMA puts the annual growth rate at an astonishing 44% since the year 2000. According to the World Bank (2012) there were more than 648.4 million mobile phone subscriptions in Africa in 2011, more than in either the United States or the European Union.

In terms of overall coverage, it is difficult to find reliable pan-African information on how much of the continent’s geographical area is actually covered by mobile networks. What we do know is that countries such as Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa, Kenya and Ghana have focussed on expanding network capacity, with the number of cellular base stations in these five countries increasing by 250% between 2007 and 2012. The importance of this coverage expansion becomes clear when we look at (the relatively prosperous) Kenya, where traditional infrastructure is limited and has been stagnating or declining for decades. For instance, the length of Kenya’s total road network actually decreased by 135km between 1993 and 2004 (World Bank, 2011). This is not an isolated example, similar stories can be told with regard to most traditional infrastructure and it is against the backdrop of this decline that the mobile phone has appeared as an economic deus ex machina.

All map data crowdsourced from our users

All map data crowdsourced from our users

What makes the mobile phone so much more enabling in Africa?

What we are seeing in Africa is an explosion in mobile phone use and, rather than being a result of increased development, it has conversely been Africa’s lack of prosperity that has lit the touch paper.

In 2007, Kenya’s biggest mobile operator Safaricom launched the now well-known M-Pesa money transfer service. Safaricom has proved to be so successful that FastCompany recently named them as one of 2013’s ten most innovative companies. Since 2007, Nairobi has proved to be fertile ground for the growth of a multitude of mobile service and software companies, in areas as diverse as education, health, agriculture and finance. In Kenya, which is Africa’s leader in information and communication technology (ICT), it is now possible to manage bills for services such as electricity, water, security and satellite TV via your mobile phone. M-Pesa payments are even being accepted by religious congregations and international charities (such as UNICEF Kenya), as well as by several schools for the collection of tuition fees (Safaricom, 2011).

All of these services have been made possible by a rise in mobile phone penetration and coverage. The mobile phone has served as a substitute for traditional infrastructure, which might have taken generations to create the benefits that can already be seen. Like no other product, the mobile phone has allowed the benefits of ICT to filter down to the general African populace, as mobile phone subscribers are now in the majority. Furthermore, when the term ICT is used it should be noted that mobile phones outnumber personal computers 16 to 1 in Africa (Kelly, 2011).

In order to fully emphasise the impact that the mobile phone has made on life in Africa, it is helpful to compare it with the impact that the smartphone has made on life in the developed world. While most people consider them essential and cannot imagine life without one, many of the services offered by our smartphones were already available to us on the high street or on our laptops. In Africa, by contrast, this is the first time that these services have been made widely available. The mobile phone has not simply transformed existing systems of economic organisation, it is the engine that now drives their provision.

While Africa is still largely using basic function mobile phones, the time is coming when widespread smartphone penetration can bring about large scale Internet access for the first time. The ongoing development of 4G LTE networks across the continent will make it possible for Africa to bypass the personal computer phase of ICT development, and bring about what Dr. Kelly (the World Bank’s lead ICT specialist) has referred to as Africa’s ‘Google moment’.

Contact the author at simon.k.andersson @ gmail.com

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