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The numbers behind mobile Africa

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Mobile technology plays a critical role in addressing a range of social, economic and developmental needs; particularly around finance and digital inclusion.

"Greater digital inclusion will drive economic and infrastructure development, increasing productivity and employment across the whole region. But it also improves access to critical services, such as health and education."

Alex Sinclair, GSMA CTO, shared these insights during the opening keynote on day two of the GSMA Mobile 360 conference in Cape Town. He also detailed the findings of a GSMA report around mobile economies in sub-Saharan Africa.

The good news is that mobile in Sub-Saharan Africa has scaled rapidly, he stated. There will be 386 million mobile subscribers across the region by the end of the year and there has been a significant navigation to high-speed connections and smart devices.

Mobile connections will rise to 57% by the end of the decade and smartphones will account for half of all mobile connections in the region come 2020.

This is all being driven by declining prices, Sinclair noted. By the end of the decade there will be 400 million new smartphones, which will make a total installed base of over half a billion. As of the middle of 2015, 200 million people were accessing the Internet using mobile devices; a figure that is expected to double in the next few years.

"Mobile has had a significant impact on Sub-Saharan African economies," he said. In 2014 alone, mobile contributed $102 billion to regional GDP, which is expected to grow to $166 billion by 2020. The mobile economy directly and indirectly supported about 4.4 million jobs in 2014 and this is expected to rise to about six million by the end of the decade.

"Sub-Saharan Africa has been a centre of innovation over the last five years, not only in terms of money but also in terms of crowdsourcing. A number of incubators have been developed and there is a flourishing mobile economy in this region."

Despite all this progress there is much to be done, Sinclair pointed out, predicting a slowdown in subscriber growth and highlighting that more than 60% of the population will still lack Internet access by the end of the decade.

Operators, other ecosystem players, governments, policy-makers and regulators all have a role in jointly addressing these issues, he noted.

"If governments can create a flexible, forward-looking and fair regulatory environment, we can nurture and encourage innovation in mobile and mobile technologies and services."

What does this mean?

Jon Fredrick Baksaas, GSMA chairman, later highlighted the impact of these figures.

"Mobile has had, and will continue to have, a profound, transformative impact on the world. The level of innovation by network operators has contributed considerably to this." Barriers are still very evident in the region, but these are being reduced all the time, he noted.

"The mobile phone has become a tool for everyone. Rich or poor. Everyone should be included."

He cited mobile money as a clear success story - driving financial growth and boosting financial inclusion across the continent. He also outlined the role of mobile in formalising the identity of the unregistered, particularly in developing economies.

"Official identity is a prerequisite for economic and social development. The ability to prove that you are who you say you are when you are interacting with government or private entities is critical to addressing basic services like healthcare, education and finance."

The idea is to leverage mobile as a source of identification and to build a digital identity ecosystem for those with no formal identification.

Many vital services still remain inaccessible for those living below the poverty line, he concluded. "But all of this mobile innovation increases the possibility of building a better future for all."

Joanne Carew
ITWeb Cape-based contributor.

Joanne Carew is an ITWeb Cape-based contributor.

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