The mobile phone is still changing the game in Africa

Dial up.
Dial up.
Image: EPA/Ahmed Jallanzo
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It is easy to glaze over the impact of the mobile phone in Africa, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa. It seems already well-established by all those presentations you’ve probably seen showing farmers getting their produce to the market on time thanks to SMS and a 2G Nokia phone. But mobile telephony’s impact in the region remains very much at an early stage and always worth reevaluating.

Between now and 2023, mobile subscriptions in the region are predicted to grow by an average of 6% a year to just under 1 billion from 700 million today, according to an upcoming report from telecommunications supplier Ericsson. Mobile broadband subscriptions are forecast to grow by 16% a year to 880 million by 2023 from 350 million today.

These big numbers may feel inevitable. But size matters and not just because telecoms suppliers can sell more kit to mobile operators. Nearly every other story we cover in Africa is determined or affected by the role of mobile telephony.

Take Kenya, where this week the opposition leader called on supporters to protest the outcome of  the last presidential election by boycotting the services of a few key companies including Safaricom. In effect, this was also a call to boycott M-Pesa, the world’s leading mobile money service, controlled by Safaricom. Billions of dollars, equivalent to nearly half of Kenya’s GDP, flow over M-Pesa every year. A comprehensive boycott of the service is a lot easier said than done, even the opposition itself found this.

Somaliland, which is holding elections on Nov. 13, has decided to block Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and other social media platforms because it fears the scourge of “fake news.” The self-declared country joins nearly 20 African countries that have done this since 2016, as we’ve reported. Meanwhile in Zimbabwe, where nearly half of all internet traffic goes to WhatsApp, the government last month blamed “economic saboteurs” for spreading rumors online (98% of all traffic is mobile).

Given the growth of the numbers that Ericsson shows, there will be more, not less, overreaction and handwringing as the availability of mobile phones and mobile internet in Sub-Saharan Africa expands. We’re still very much at the beginning of mobile’s impact.