May 26, 2013
While Africa mobile subscriptions have grown to over 700 million
(or about 70% of population) by 2013, Internet penetration still stands at 16% of population
. To put this in a different perspective, over 800 million Africans do not have access to the Internet. The only pathway to increasing Internet penetration in Africa is through the provision of inexpensive smartphones. This will obviously entice more people to subscribe to mobile Internet.
The going market price for most smartphones is way out of reach of most Africans. We do applaud Samsung and Huawei for coming up with smart devices intended for Africa, the Samsung Galaxy Pocket and IDEOS, respectively that sell for less than $200. This is a significant reduction in smartphone cost that will enable more Africans to own a smart device and effectively access the Internet. But the price is not low enough to trigger a significant growth in Internet penetration.
For there to be any significant change in the status quo, Africans have to think out of the box and come up with a unique model for developing these devices. We cannot continue to rely on Western companies, some of whom only think of Africa as a continent of famine and war, to bring us all the solutions we need. We have gone through this path of hoping for the West to come up with a cost effective computer for Africa and that really didn’t work very well. Mobile operators with support from governments and the African Union should look into developing cost effective smart phones for the African continent. It is in the best interest of the operators and the African people.
Operators in Angola, Botswana, Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda are spending billions of dollars on LTE networks. Since revenues from voice are dwindling, the hope is that LTE will enable data and video that can generate more revenues for operators. But what is the point in building such high capacity networks if only a minute fraction of the population will be able to effectively utilise the network capabilities?
One possible model that comes to mind is for African operators to form a consortium managed by a special purpose vehicle to develop a new smart phone for Africa. While this can be done in collaboration with foreign companies, the specifications and requirements will be dictated by Africans for the benefit of Africans. There is no shortage of Africans at home and in the Diaspora who can take on such a task. In fact, there have been a number of initiatives to mobilise Diaspora African experts to contribute their time to the development of Africa. This is one area in which they can contribute.
Unless Africans are actively involved in the development of a new cost effective smart device to enable more Africans to have access to the Internet, flamboyant new mobile networks may just remain white elephants.