Ugandans spent US$39.4 million on SMS messages last year
Mobile phone users in Uganda have in the past two years sent close to 700 million short messages (SMSs) worth an estimated sh86b (US$39.4 million), statistics from the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) indicate.
Considering that there are nine million mobile phone subscribers in Uganda, this means that every subscriber sent about 40 messages per year. Compared to other countries, this may be a small figure. But by Ugandan standards, it means this new form of communication is a fast growing and lucrative business.
UCC confirms that Ugandans increasingly use short messages as an alternative to making phone calls. Ugandans sent a total of 345 million messages in 2007 and 354 million in 2008. While the number of messages to the same network went down, there was a sharp rise in messages to other networks.
This is partly due to the entry of new operators on the market with more competitive rates for SMS. It is also the result of widespread promotions by the mobile phone companies who offered calls to the same network at very low rates, almost free of charge in some instances, thus discouraging the use of SMS.
The promotions included MTN Zone, Zain's unlimited calls upon loading sh2,000 worth of airtime, Warid's Bang KB for free, which offered free calls on the same network the day after loading any amount of air time, and utl's family and friends as well as Jazz to Jazz discounts.
The statistics, however, show a significant drop in international messages in the last two years, from 24 million in 2007 to 14 million in 2008. This is being attributed to the introduction of cheaper international calling rates and merged regional networks such as One Network.
In neighbouring Kenya, texting has also increasingly become a popular way of communication. A total of 2.5 million subscribers sent out 152 million messages in 2004. This figure rose to 11.4 million subscribers sending 450 million messages three years later.
The other factor driving the SMS use in Uganda is the relatively low price across all networks. The statistics indicate an average of sh113 for messages sent within the same network, sh125 for messages sent to other networks within the country, and sh202 for messages sent to international destinations.
There has also been an increase in email-to-phone messages, some of which enable sending of bulk SMS. Some others are enabled to send SMS's for free depending on the configurations of targeted networks. Local telecoms have also ushered in several additional services, including real-time mobile banking similar to the M-Pesa that is offered by Safaricom in Kenya.
With the big numbers now realised in text messaging and almost one third of Uganda's population having a mobile phone, keen communicators are bound to start targeting the new channel.
Major media houses in the country have learnt the use of SMS and leading government organisations are beginning to see its opportunities. An attempt was made in 2006 to inform voters by SMS during the Presidential elections. This way of communication will surely have gained momentum by the next elections in 2011. Some NGOs use it to spread health