MOBILE COMMUNICATIONS IN AFRICA
The phenomenal development of mobile communications since the turn of the new millennium demonstrates the potential of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to transform economic and social life on the African continent. After years of being an ICT laggard relative to other developing regions of the world, mobile communications have pushed Africa to the forefront in a new information revolution.
Consider these facts:
Africa has attracted more ICT users since 2000 than in the previous hundred (since ICT is a recent technological revolution, ‘...the previous hundred years’ sound more impressive than it really is);
Africa was the first region in the world where the number of mobile users overtook the number of fixed lines (in 2001) and by the start of 2004 there were more than twice as many mobile users as fixed lines (see Figure 1, top chart) (where are these charts?)
Africa has had the fastest growing mobile sector of any world region over the last five years and has the highest percentage of mobile users as a percentage of total telephone subscribers (Figure 1, bottom chart);
More than three-quarters of African states now have competition in the mobile market and more than 95 per cent of African users enjoy a choice of operator. Yet, paradoxically, this success story was not anticipated. The majority of forecasts regarding the adoption of mobile communications in Africa vastly underestimated the real demand for communications on the continent.
These failings in forecasting and measurement were based on the fundamental misapprehension that Africans were too poor to afford high quality modern telecommunications. The subsequent experience of growth in mobile communications has shown this to be false. Yet, there remains a temptation to repeat this myth in a different form. In particular, much of the current debate concerning the so-called “Digital Divide” seems to assume that the current status quo in access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) will continue to exist long into the foreseeable future and that market mechanisms-letting users decide what they want-will not succeed in closing the divide.
Since 1998, the growth rate in effective teledensity has been 24.6 percent per year is more than four times higher than that of any comparable period in the past (ITU) This steep change is confirmed by the impact on annual change in effective teledensity (see Figure 2, bottom chart). For many young Africans, their first experience of ICTs will be in using a mobile phone. But is there a danger that this will be their only experience? The popularity of mobiles in Africa may be to the detriment of growth in the fixed line Internet. Africa’s share of global Internet users (1.8 per cent) is far below its share of global mobile phone users (3.8 per cent) and mobile phones outnumber personal computers by five to one. At some stage in the future, the mobile phone network (or more accurately, wireless technologies in general) will provide a viable solution for low-cost, high-speed access to the Internet, but this is not likely to happen within the next five years. Thus take-up of Internet in Africa may be constrained by the lack of growth in the fixed-line network.
Do ICT’s in Africa matter?
Does it matter that there are now twice as many mobile phones on the continent of Africa as there were 18 months ago? Does the rise of mobile phones simply mean that already rich corporations that provide mobile phone service become richer, at the expense of poor Africans, who would be better off using lower cost fixed-line telephones? Should policy attention be focussed on addressing the “digital divide" as some have suggested, as a better way of raising productivity, than on addressing “digital opportunities” in ICTs?
ICTs do matter. It is no accident that Africa is currently enjoying its fastest rate of economic growth for almost two decades, and that this period coincides with the rise in mobile communications. But how do ICTs contribute to increasing productivity and general economic and social development? Although much research work on the links between telecommunications and development have focussed on evaluation of specific projects (e.g., creation of a multi-purpose telecentre, a telehealth project or distance learning university) the more profound impact is likely to be more modest, and to operate at a micro-scale. Arguably, the most significant socio-economic impacts of mobile phones on the lives of individual Africans in rural areas would include:
Turning under-employment into self-employment and entrepreneurship. For the many Africans who work in the informal economy, access to a mobile phone can greatly extend the pool of possible clients. Resale of telephone service, e.g., through privately owned teleshops, is also an important source of employment.
Income, in the form of remittances sent from family members working in towns, or outside of the country, play an important part in the economic life of rural areas in Africa. Access to mobile phones and other ICTs can make the payment of remittances more reliable, more efficient (fewer middlemen) and possibly more regular as communication helps to keep the extended family unit in closer contact. Price harmonisation
Any ICT that assists in the flow of information, for instance, the price of goods in different locations (town versus rural areas), will tend to improve the functioning of markets and combat excessive price gouging.
These beneficial effects of mobile phones may be less high profile than, say, the establishment of a major telehealth project, using leased lines to transmit X-Ray images to consultants in foreign countries, but they arguably reach more lives and are potentially more sustainable.
Another interesting factor of the current mobile communications boom is that much of the investment has come from within Africa itself, rather than from outside the region. The leading five African mobile consortia, account for 32.8 million subscribers, on a proportionate basis, or 63 per cent of Africa’s total. The top three (Vodacom, MTN, Orascom) are headquartered on African soil and a fourth one (CelTel) has mainly African investors. It seems that foreign investors may have been scared away by the pessimistic outlook for African telecommunications that was promoted as the orthodoxy of the 1990s. This left the market open to local investors who have, on the whole, made a very profitable business out of supplying Africans with cell phones. Four out of the five consortia, for which separate profit and loss accounts are available, made US$0.73 billion in profits in 2003 on revenue of over US$6 billion. This profit level of 11 per cent would be enviable in many developed regions of the world.
There is an old saying, that a glass can be described as either half-empty or half-full. Both descriptions may be statistically accurate, and fully supported by scientific observation, but the former is backwards-looking and pessimistic while the other is forwards-looking and optimistic.
The same is true of the phrases “digital divide” and “digital opportunity”. The former is accurate, and it is possible to show the persistence of incontrovertible differences in level of access to ICTs, both within Africa and between Africa and the rest of the world. But the latter is more likely to attract the investors, and is more in tune with what is currently happening in the region.
To quote from Benjamin Compaine (The Digital Divide 2001): “My policy recommendation: declare the war against the digital divide won and move on to issues with higher stakes.” Although this was written in a different context, it seems to apply very well to Africa. If we choose to focus only on Africa’s problems, we will be doing a huge disservice to the men and women who have been busy creating a revolution in the field of ICTs in the last few years. Let’s instead focus on Africa’s potential, and let us welcome Africa as the newest member to the global Information Society.
Dr Tim Kelly is Head of the Strategy and Policy Unit (SPU) at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an intergovernmental agency based in Geneva, Switzerland.
I wish to thank Lara Srivastava, ICT Policy Analyst at the SPU. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of ITU or its membership. For more information on this topic, and for background data, please see “African Telecommunication Indicators” (ITU, 7th edition, May 2004), www.itu.int/ti.
1. ITU (2004) “The Portable Internet”, 6th edition in the ITU Internet Reports, series, September 2004, 220pp. See www.itu.int/
2. Kenny, Charles J. & Fink, Carsten (2003) “W(h)ither the Digital Divide”, in Info, Vol. 5 #6, and available at: http://www.developmentgateway.org/
3. “The Digital Divide: Facing a Crisis or Creating a Myth?” Edited by Benjamin M. Compaine, MIT Press 2001.