Internet use on mobile phones in Africa predicted to increase 20-fold


By the end of 2014, it is forecast that there will be more than 635m mobile subscriptions in sub-Saharan Africa.

Africa's claim to be the "mobile continent" is even stronger than previously thought, with researchers predicting internet use on mobile phones will increase 20-fold in the next five years – double the rate of growth in the rest of the world.

People in Africa use mobiles for online activities that others normally perform on laptops or desktop computers as the technology overcomes weak or non-existent landline infrastructure in large swaths of the world's poorest continent.

Declining prices of handsets and data, along with faster transmission speeds, mean Facebook, Twitter and cash transfer services can reach both the growing African middle class and the remotest rural areas, where villagers often find ingenious ways of keeping phones charged. Consumers in Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria are increasingly using video and media services on newly affordable smartphones.

"Sub-Saharan Africa is currently undergoing a mobile digital revolution with consumers, networks and even media companies wakening up the possibilities of 3G and 4G technology," said Fredrik Jejdling, sub-Saharan Africa head of Swedish tech company Ericsson, which published its research report on Thursday. "We have seen the trend emerging over a few years but in the past 12 months the digital traffic has increased over 100%, forcing us to revise our existing predictions."

In five years, the research predicts, voice call traffic in sub-Saharan Africa will double and there will be an explosion in mobile data, with usage growing 20 times between 2013 and 2019, twice the anticipated global expansion.

By the end of 2014, it is forecast that there will be more than 635m mobile subscriptions in sub-Saharan Africa. This is predicted to rise, to about 930m by late 2019, when it is estimated that three in four mobile subscriptions will be internet inclusive. The growth is attributed to the rise of social media, content-rich apps and video content accessed from a new range of smartphones costing less than $50 (£30).

"The rise of cheap smartphones will allow vast portions of the population – from middle classes in cities to small businesses in rural areas – access to mobile broadband," Jejdling added. "Mobile commerce can offer endless opportunities for entrepreneurs and we've found that farmers are fans of mobile wallets – as well as teenagers wanting to watch music videos on their smartphone."

The mobile has had a unique impact on Africa because of its relative lack of physical connectivity and access to reliable electricity. The report says that 70% of users in the countries it researched browse the web on mobile devices, compared with just 6% who use desktop computers. "Mobile users in the region have shown a preference for using their device for a variety of activities that are normally performed on laptops or desktops."

Mobile banking has given consumers cheaper access to their finances, it says, reducing the need to travel to bank branches. "The large number of people in sub-Saharan Africa who do not have bank accounts suggests that mobile phones may be the only way that many people will be able to access financial services."

The authors also cite the example of MedAfrica as a mobile app providing basic information about health and medicine, reducing the need for travel and the pressure on doctors. "Affordable access to mobile broadband is not a luxury, but a necessity in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa."

Entertainment content is also a factor, with some Nollywood movies spurring smartphone uptake in Nigeria.

The sub-Saharan African countries with the most mobile subscriptions are Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ghana.

Lower specification feature phones that can access the internet are available for less than $20 (£12), he added, while in the next few years smartphones will drop below $40 ). He described Samsung as the big winner and Chinese giant Huawei as the dark horse of the fast-developing market, with Nokia also well placed with feature phones if it moves swiftly. Apple will appeal to the high end of the market – it has 3% penetration in South Africa – but BlackBerry is on a "downward trajectory".