Digital Content

According to Tim Kelly, Head of Strategy & Policy, ITU, Africa is the first region in the World where mobile phones outnumbered fixed lines. Several countries including Nigeria, Morocco, Cameroun and Uganda, have mobile phones at up to five times more than fixed phones. Using mobile telephony, African countries are expanding their telecommunications coverage at a frenetic pace as part of a seemingly unconscious continental experiment at substituting fixed lines with mobiles.

Though Africa has just 33.6 million of a global total of 1,145 billion mobile telephone users at the end of 2002, the dramatic growth in mobile take-up on the Continent only shows dramatically when that figure is compared with the number of mobile subscribers in Africa at the beginning of 1999, a mere 2.4 million.

Additionally, with 46% of total global mobile telephone subscriptions in developing countries, the digital divide is indeed being bridged, at least with respect to digital mobile services.

The main drivers of mobile growth on the continent include:

- Liberalization of the telecoms market, allowing private companies to provide services by competing with each other and the incumbent operator. Countries that have successfully liberalized the mobile communications space include South Africa, Cameroun, Nigeria, Morocco, to mention just a few.

- Strong demand for communications services. This derives from the natural need to communicate, the absence of reliable fixed lines, the convenience of owning a mobile, etc.

In a recent World Bank-assisted primary market survey at 18 locations in Nigeria towards determining a Universal Access strategy, eShekels found that Nigerian households were spending between 8% and 17% of monthly income on communications. The results are not untypical of many African countries. "The enormous potential and revenue per line," says Hamadoun Toure, Director, ITU, "is higher than elsewhere in the World."

- The choice of prepaid. Prepaid is a developing economy innovation and was first introduced by the Portuguese operator TMN in 1995, and is a major driver of growth in mobile subscriptions in Africa, as an effective means of ensuring payment is secured for communications service. Prepaid take-up in the developing world is an instant hit, and Africa is no exception.

Interestingly, the West is adopting prepaid not just for mobile telephony but even for emerging services such as Wi-Fi, Multimedia, Internet content, etc.

- Dynamism of mobile operators. Mobile licensees have been very proactive in aggressively addressing the demand for services and ensuring that their networks and services meet up with minimum global standards. The dynamism of mobile is in most cases, lacking in the fixed sector.

Mobile telephony affords operators a faster, cheaper network installation. "Mobile (is) unstoppable as a solution to the chronic communications malaise affecting most of the world’s poor", points out Sarah Parkes, freelance journalist.

That mobile is succeeding in Africa is no longer news. What is new and challenging is how the success of mobile can be replicated and applied to other technologies and industries within Africa. Africa still has a lesson or two to teach the world with respect to the use of technology and the solutions that work in low-income environments.