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Africa: Mobile Internet Taking Off

AfricaFocus Bulletin
May 5, 2009 (090505)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"The number of people in Africa using their mobile to access the Internet has rocketed over the last year. In many instances the number of mobile Internet subscribers far outstrips their fixed line equivalent. ... By the end of 2008, South Africa had 1.35 million Internet subscribers, of which, according to World Wide Worx, 794,000 were wireless Internet subscribers ...I hear you saying that this is South Africa and the rest of Africa is different. [But similar proportions hold in Uganda, Tanzania, and other countries] - Russell Southwood, Balancing Act Africa

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains this article from the latest Balancing Act Africa ( on the rapid expansion of mobile internet access in Africa. Also included: a link to a new book on "Mobile Phones: The New Talking Drums of Everyday Africa" ( featuring case studies of Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Mali, Sudan, and Tanzania; excerpts from another recent article from Balancing Act Africa on the rapid advance of mobile phones for cash transfers in Kenya; and report on a South African initiative to promote a strategy to deliver broadband internet access available to all South Africans (

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on information and communication technology, visit


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Mobile Phones: The New Talking Drums of Everyday Africa (Paperback)

by Mirjam de Bruijn (Editor), Francis Nyamnjoh (Editor), Inge Brinkman (Editor) Bamenda: Cameroon: Langaa Publishers, 2009.

'We cannot imagine life now without a mobile phone' is a frequent comment when Africans are asked about mobile phones. They have become part and parcel of the communication landscape in many urban and rural areas of Africa and the growth of mobile telephony is amazing: from 1 in 50 people being users in 2000 to 1 in 3 in 2008. Such growth is impressive but it does not even begin to tell us about the many ways in which mobile phones are being appropriated by Africans and how they are transforming or are being transformed by society in Africa. This volume ventures into such appropriation and mutual shaping. Rich in theoretical innovation and empirical substantiation, it brings together reflections on developments around the mobile phone by scholars of six African countries (Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Mali, Sudan and Tanzania) who explore the economic, social and cultural contexts in which the mobile phone is being adopted, adapted and harnessed by mobile Africa.

Balancing Act Africa News Update

Issue No 452 1st May 2009

Africa's rapid mobile Internet growth will drive network expansion and media spend

The number of people in Africa using their mobile to access the Internet has rocketed over the last year. In many instances the number of mobile Internet subscribers far outstrips their fixed line equivalent. Sinking voice ARPUs may finally come off their downward curve on the rise of data revenues. Cheaper bandwidth and new developments look set to encourage this growth. The mobile is also a media as increasing numbers of people use it to access stuff and as it establishes itself as a media, advertisers will not be far behind. Russell Southwood looks at what's happening just below the radar.

By the end of 2008, South Africa had 1.35 million Internet subscribers, of which, according to World Wide Worx, 794,000 were wireless Internet subscribers and 588,000 were ADSL subscribers. Even discounting fixed wireless subscribers, there are more mobile Internet subscribers than fixed.

I hear you saying that this is South Africa and the rest of Africa is different. So I present you with two more pieces of evidence. UCC's year end figures for Uganda show 214,293 active mobile Internet accounts up from 166,621 at the end of Q3, 2008. Compared to? 22,000 fixed line subscribers. In late 2008 in Tanzania there were 600,000 EDGE/GPRS subscribers and 15,000 HSDPA subscribers compared to just over 70,000 fixed line Internet subscribers.

Several things are striking about these figures. Although there is undoubtedly duplication between fixed and mobile Internet subscribers, the number of mobile Internet subscribers is in the hundreds of thousands whilst its fixed equivalent is in the tens of thousands. It also implies that there is a far larger group of people willing to buy Internet services if only it worked and was priced right.

These kinds of user numbers allow for a "critical mass" that will encourage further use. So far there is much less data on revenues but if data (including SMS) is around 12% of overall mobile revenues in South Africa, it's hard to see why these kinds of figures won't turn in significantly higher revenues elsewhere.

There is also a take-off point waiting to happen at the user end. What's the difference between e-mail and SMS? A different interface and one has a far more limited length of message. Several million Africans in any country you care to name use SMS (Ugandans sent US$39.4 million worth of them last year) so why can't they use their mobile to send e-mails instead? The answer must in large part lie in the simplicity of the SMS interface.

Enter a number of companies who have produced e-mail workarounds that give you different levels of Internet functionality on some or all phones. Synchronica boasts that its apps will deliver "a Blackberry for the rest of us" in Africa. It has had a range of deals with operators including Zain and MTN It is aimed at consumers and business users who may not have high-end phones.

The software allows the user to receive e-mails and for them to be sent back as e-mails. In addition any any SyncML-enabled device will allow the user to synchronise Google contacts and calendars. It believes its software is one weapon in the armoury of operators to reduce churn.

ForgetMeNot's Message Optimiser product means that users can initiate e-mails and add e-mail addresses to their phone: for the latter, users are sent a number to use. This product claims to be able to work across nearly all handsets, including many of the cheapest. It will launch its first service with an operator in South Africa at the end of the month.

It concatenates messages so it can "add" three SMS messages together, for example, to give 480 characters. It will also allow a local provider to let its users send an e-mail/SMS locally and then deliver that e-mail internationally: in other words, Kofi in Accra can send a message to his son in London for the price of an SMS.

South Africa's MXit (now owned by Naspers) allows users to send Instant Messages to MSN Messenger, ICQ and Google Talk (among others) a great deal more cheaply than sending SMSes because the messages go via the Internet. It claims to have 11 million users in Africa (of which 5.4 million are in South Africa) and that its use will grow by 414% in Africa and the Middle East. Discount that number by however much you like and you still end up with a big number.

If these developments are from the bottom up, then intuitive, smart, touch screen phones are coming from the top down. In August last year one carrier in Nigeria reported that after only a few months, it had sold 20,000 Blackberry phones: not touch-screen phones but an indicator nonetheless. There are no stats yet but the number of iPhones seems to be growing and they are not just in the hands of uber-technology adopters.

The icon-based apps on the iPhone provide a perfect template for certain kinds of services, done in such a way that you don't even have to be familiar with the Internet to use them. You just keep tapping away and it explains itself.

All of this Mobile Internet usage makes mobile phones a media like radio or television. Africans wanting to know the match score or the headlines increasingly turn to their mobile. When the official media isn't telling the full story, SMS goes into overdrive providing some hard fact and a lot of rumour. Favourite TV shows ask you to vote for participants and performers. Below-the-line spending on competitions allows you to win prizes that boost brand awareness. Millions of people in Africa are doing these things every day.

Where advertising spend is tracked by media in Africa, Internet spend is 1% in both Kenya and South Africa. As usage increases, this is likely to go up to 3-5% in larger markets. The use of SMS and mobile Internet as an advertising medium is usually below the line 'spend' on promotions and therefore goes unrecorded. But there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that this might also constitute around 1% of advertising spend.

As advertising spend grows, content will become more sophisticated and varied in order to attract people's attention. Who stands more chance of delivering this kind of content? Africa's existing mobile operators whose knowledge and understanding of content is limited in a carefully walled garden? Independent local providers who share the revenues more equitably than at present in an open community, leaving the mobile operators to take the revenues for making it work? I leave you to be the judge of that one.

Africa's mobile operators cannot believe their luck with the mobile Internet. There are those who would like to portray it as a deeply strategic move but in reality most involved have simply been playing leapfrog with their competitors: it was always really 'suck it and see' encouraged by good vendor deals. (We were early sceptics so no-one gets everything right). But now 3G is leaking out of the capital into a range of other towns and cities (see Vodacom in Tanzania) and before long it will follow some of the pattern of GSM voice diffusion. 3G implementation also provides a range of network efficiencies that will provide incentives for this type of roll-out.

All of this means that most mobile operators will have to do one of two things: either upgrade their backhaul networks to allow for data usage more widely across the network or separate data out using WiMAX as many operators are already doing. For although it's good news having all these customers, they will expect the service to work and will not be impressed if the network goes down because there are already a couple of users on the base station.

That said, the mobile Internet is on its way to becoming a reality across the continent.

Balancing Act Africa News Update

Issue No 450 17th April 2009

M-Money services a huge success in Kenya but waiting for their breakout moment elsewhere

Safaricom started its M-Pesa service in April 2007 with a first year target of getting 0.5 million users. It passed this target within six months and in February 2009 clocked up an astounding 5.8 million customers. Both in Kenya and elsewhere on the continent its competitors have been putting in place their own competitive M-Money products. But things seem to be going somewhat more slowly outside of the Kenyan market for these innovative service. Russell Southwood looks at what's happening and tries to identify what makes a good M-Money market.

It has been estimated that 90% of Kenya's 37.9 million population is unbanked. In February 2008 M-Pesa users transferred KS14.5 billion and cumulative total of money transferred since the launch two years ago has been KS118 bn. However, M-Pesa transfers are relatively small alongside total bank transactions.


The service has 7,512 agents countrywide. People with bank accounts were amongst the first users but very quickly its appeal was almost universal. Penetration rates are higher in urban areas but there are also high-use points in places like remote refugee camps. As Vaughan told us:"There's some really remote agents and we want to encourage the service to go rural." One of the keys to the service's success seems to be its extensive network of agents. Each has to invest between KS50,000-100,000 and there is still considerable interest from people looking to start a new business.

There will be two further developments of the service this year: firstly, international transfers will be added ("some time in 2009") and the menu item Buy Goods will be implemented through a partnership with Pay Bill. ...

[see full article at]

Launch of draft framework for a national broadband strategy highlights policy vacuum in South Africa

Johannesburg, South Africa, Mar 25, 2009 (APC and partners)

A draft framework towards a broadband strategy in South Africa was launched in Johannesburg on Tuesday. The framework was intended to highlight the current policy vacuum around broadband roll-out in South Africa, and to create a "popular movement" around broadband in the country.

It was also hoped that a reinvigorated policy direction in South Africa could propel the country back to the number one spot in internet access rankings on the continent.

The draft framework was one of the outcomes of a one-day multi-stakeholder workshop held in Parktown by the South African National Broadband Forum, an initiative of the Shuttleworth Foundation, SANGONeT, South Africa Connect, and the Association for Progressive Communications (APC).

The forum said the framework was intended as an advocacy document that can be used to lobby government around broadband roll-out, as well as by sectors to galvanize a pro-active response to the imminent availability of the SEACOM undersea cable in South Africa in June.

Scaling up ICT investment

According to one presentation, South Africa needs to spend some R40-billion on information and communications technology (ICTs) infrastructure roll-out a year in order to keep its place in international access rankings. While this was a "guesstimate", it served to illustrate that current spending patterns are nowhere near what they need to be in order for the country to compete successfully in the information economy. This, together with a lack of policy coherence, was likely to increase the access divide in the country, and have a negative knock-on impact on poverty alleviation efforts. Broadband had a crucial role to play in the delivery of government services, as well as in economic development generally.

APC's Willie Currie said there was an opportunity for lobbying for progressive policy development on broadband given the upcoming elections, and that the post-Polokwane administration had given itself the task of scaling up service delivery to the majority of South Africans.

He pointed out that there were parallels between South Africa and the United States, which had like this country been dropping in global access rankings. As a result, a broadband strategy became a selling point of the Obama administration's election campaign, and was now high on its agenda.

"South Africa was a leading economy with respect to internet penetration," Currie said. "Now we are fourth in Africa behind Egypt, Morocco and Nigeria. With the upcoming elections, there is a window of opportunity when new ideas can be proposed and demands raised. Engagement can take place."

Framework available for public input

The draft framework, which is available online for comment and input, sets out the vision or broadband take-up in South Africa in general terms. Its overall goal is for "[a]ll South Africans [to] have affordable broadband access to the Internet". It then goes on to articulate general principles around demand and supply-side objectives, as well those dealing with e-governance, e-citizenship and education.

The Shuttleworth Foundation's Steve Song has encouraged stakeholders to add their name in support of the framework. "The intention is to use it to ask questions of politicians and political parties," he said. "It is a reference point that allows us to ask: 'Where do you stand?' We want to create a popular movement around broadband as a strategic issue."

The one-day workshop was attended by stakeholders from across board, including government, the private sector and civil society. Presentations included projections on internet penetration in South Africa, the impact of broadband on content industries, education and e-citizenship, as well as on using ICTs to deal with crises such as climate change.

The draft Framework for a Comprehensive National Broadband Strategy in South Africa is also downloadable, in pdf format, from: (direct link:

The workshop was blogged at

For more information, or to arrange interviews, please contact: Alan Finlay 084 429 5133

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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