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Government wants to advance affordable handsets

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 15 Nov 2023
Communications and digital technologies minister Mondli Gungubele. (Photograph by DCDT)
Communications and digital technologies minister Mondli Gungubele. (Photograph by DCDT)

South Africa’s communications ministry is working on a strategy to make smartphone devices more affordable, says minister Mondli Gungubele.

This, as countries like East African nation Kenya have reportedlylaunched a device assembly factory to make $50 smartphones, setting a target to produce three million devices per year.

Addressing delegates during his welcome address at yesterday’s Africa Tech Festival 2023, Gungubele issued an open invitation for partnerships with his department.

“I invite you to partner with us in localising the manufacturing and assembling of smartphones and laptops, to accelerate digital adoption,” said the minister.

Access to affordable devices on the African continent has long been an issue of contention, with pricey devices often seen as a key barrier to getting people in the region online.

Angela Wamola, head of GSM Association Sub-Saharan Africa, previously said despite the proliferation of mobile phones in the region over the last decade, the expense of smartphones remains the biggest barrier.

Wamola acknowledged there are other hurdles, such as digital literacy, getting relevant content, as well as the affordability of other services, but these centre around the device.

Sub-Saharan Africa remains the fastest-growing mobile region in the world, with projections showing 50% of the population will have a mobile subscription or use mobile services by 2025. The figure currently stands at 46%.

Hosted in the City of Cape Town, the Africa Tech Festival is delivered in partnership with Gungubele’s Department of Communications and Digital Technologies.

This year marks the 26th edition of the technology and telecoms event that brings together ICT ministers, vendors and key industry role players in Africa’s digital ecosystem.

Gungubele also used his address to highlight the constraints that plague the continent’s digital advancement, noting this includes limited resources to connectivity and poor digital literacy that prevents individuals from fully engaging with the online world.

Despite the prevalence of mobile connectivity, Gungubele believes there is ample room for improvement in providing “reliable and affordable” home-based internet access.

Referencing data from the International Telecommunication Union, the minister said there is a notable digital divide between Africa and more developed regions, particularly Europe.

While approximately 40% of Africa's population is connected to the internet, for example, Europe boasts an 89% internet penetration rate, he noted.

The minister added that a large proportion of the African population (60%) is excluded from the digital economy due to physical infrastructure barriers, or the limited availability of suitable and affordable digital applications and services.

Closer to home, Gungubele said the 2023 ICASA State of the ICT Sector Report shows around 69% can access the internet through mobile devices. However, a disparity emerges when considering internet access from home, where only about 10% of the population has access to internet connectivity, be it through fibre or fixed wireless access.

“Since last year’s edition of Africa Tech Festival, we have rolled out more wireless sites and fibre networks on the continent. Africa’s total inventory of operational fibre-optic network reached 1.1 million kilometres by June 2022, a further 119 000km of fibre-optic network is under construction, a further 125 000km is planned, and another 69 000km is proposed. This is complemented by the boom in submarine cables, with the Google Equiano boosting Africa’s capacity by 144-terabits.

“As we transcend this journey of meaningful digital connectivity, we hope to see more emerging opportunities in the telecoms and networking industry than before, with focus on improving network connectivity in Africa, ensuring more SMMEs and new players build their businesses in Africa, and greater collaborative partnerships in fibre and cloud services.

“It is estimated rollout of fibre-optic backbone increases the GDP of African countries by up to 5%, further increasing productivity and efficiency.”