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High handset prices keep Sub-Saharan Africa offline

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 11 Apr 2023

Despite the proliferation of mobile phones in Sub-Saharan Africa over the last decade, the expense of smartphones remains the biggest barrier to getting people in the region online.

This is according to Angela Wamola, head of the GSM Association (GSMA) Sub-Saharan Africa, in an interview with ITWeb.

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. This figure currently stands at 46%.

However, out of this 46%, only 22% of the population access 3G and 4G internet, reveals Wamola. This means 78% of the population is offline, which is “bad in this day and age”.

“There is a lot of work that still needs to be done. As at 2021, the mobile industry was generating around 8% of GDP across the Sub-Saharan African region and supporting more than 3.2 million jobs. There is such a massive enablement effect on the digital and socio-economic growth for the continent − and that's the excitement.

“At the same time, there is now that frustration, not only from the private sector, but also government... that our people should not be left behind. When you talk about leaving no one behind, for Africa, it means leaving no one offline. We see this as an opportunity to leapfrog and be part of the global economy for once.”

Wamola points out that during the pandemic, communities − largely made up of women, youth and the rural areas − had a difficult time being part of the economy.

While technology was for the most part leveraged to stay in touch, to be able to do business and receive services, that was not the case for many communities in the region, she notes.

The impact of a lack of smartphones for people in Sub-Saharan Africa cannot be understated, she adds.

“We're now looking at a crossroads that we need to work and leverage the global economy to do something about the situation, because device affordability is the key barrier for our people to go online.

“We acknowledge there are other barriers, such as digital literacy, getting relevant content, as well as the affordability of other services, such as mobile money, but these centre around the device.

“There is a percentage of the population whose challenge of digital literacy can be overcome by having a smartphone as opposed to a feature phone. There is a possibility that there will be more relevant content being churned out by our youth, if they have access to a smartphone in order to generate and use that content and make it work for them.”

Angela Wamola, head of GSMA Sub-Saharan Africa. Photograph by AfDB Group
Angela Wamola, head of GSMA Sub-Saharan Africa. Photograph by AfDB Group

Wamola believes other barriers will be unlocked should the region overcome the hurdle of access to affordable smartphones.

Affordability means availability of a smartphone at the $50 (roughly R919) price point, she notes; however, this is mainly the price point of a 3G device.

“We haven't even said anything about a price point at 4G level and 5G level. We have to call on the ecosystem of the industry, handset manufacturers, operating systems, content providers, to determine how we can reduce the cost of the smartphone. This is to make sure the population with the lowest income – in terms of how much they can spare in their mobile wallet – purchase a smartphone.”

She explains there are initiatives, like credit financing and partnerships with the banking sector, aimed at increasing accessibility. However, these will not reach the lowest cadre, who will say it's still not enough.

“You're talking about a $50 phone, for example, whether it's manufactured locally or imported. $50 and being able to finance that with the little money they have in terms of the percentage of wallet they can spare for a phone and 1GB of data bundle on a monthly basis, that is just simply too high.”

According to Wamola, there have been discussions with stakeholders in the region, and the GSMA is committed to working with everyone that would like to solve the problem at a global level.

“Considering the different components of what makes up the key costs of a smartphone, aside from taxation, I think the next biggest opportunity is maybe having a look at the intellectual property rights that still have a lease of life of 10 years after smartphones have been developed in the markets.

“Is there an opportunity for the ecosystem to partially waiver those intellectual property rights, to further bring down the costs of basic or low-entry smartphones that will appeal to our youth and allow content creativity too?

“Africa is a youthful continent… our youth [want] to be online, they want to participate and create content; it's not just providing a phone without providing the necessary capabilities.”

She suggested looking at the problem a little deeper and more holistically, to understand this is not just an African problem, but rather a global problem.