The enthusiasm with which Africa has embraced mobile technology has been unrivalled in other regions of the world. It is even more impressive when you take into consideration the fact that widespread poverty and unavailability of fixed telephony ensured only the wealthy could afford phones not so long ago.
The mobile technology landscape in Africa began to change in the mid-1990s when mobile companies began to see reasons to provide cheap communication. The growth of the middle class also meant increasing demand for services. To meet these demands, providers began constructing mobile towers which were easier to deploy than dedicated copper line networks.
That shift has driven mobile phone subscriber numbers across Africa to 329 million in the last twenty years. This figure interestingly is similar to the figure in the United States for the time period. Analysts believe the figure will read 500 million come 2020. Revenue from voice, message and data now contributes to 5.4% of the sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP, as it crossed the US$75 billion mark in 2013.
The speedy growth in mobile technology usage may not have been possible if the middle class did not rise to 130 million between 2000 and 2010. By the end of this decade, the African Development Bank expects another 100 million middle class individuals to have joined this number.
Africa has become so important in the mobile technology landscape that mobile solutions providers like PayPal have since opened their business to individuals there. Mobile application providers have also continued to target African users with some of them banking on new ease of transactions as provided by PayPal. For example, mobile gaming apps that accept PayPal are very popular; thousands of people play mobile casino games every day. E-commerce has also continued to boom as the matured mobile technology sector means most middle class individuals can now shop from the comfort of their homes.
Mobile solutions can now easily be developed allowing new innovations in sectors such as Agriculture.
Users in even the remotest parts of the continent can pay their bills, transfer funds and get loans on cheap mobile devices that support internet connectivity due to rise in local mobile payment solutions. Some of them like Ghana’s ExpressPay have received backing from global players. Experts believe the mobile banking sector in Africa will be worth US$1.4bn by 2020.
However, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. The increasing proliferation of internet means mobile carriers are now facing lost voice and sms revenue as users now use apps like WhatsApp for both voice and text. Over-the-top (OTT) content usage as it has been called has left some mobile carriers looking for ways to throttle services. Their argument is that the providers of the services like WhatsApp, Viber and the likes have not invested anything into the African economy and, therefore, they cannot continue to allow their services to eat into their sms and voice revenue.
The public outrage that greeted this argument from mobile providers meant that the topic has been dropped by many of them. In South Africa for example, more than 80% of subscribers use OTT services like WhatsApp. The figures are similar across the continent. This means that mobile providers have to find a way to balance revenue from data and lost revenue from sms and voice while they continue to improve on services to a soaring clientele that will continue to use OTT services.