Telecommunications Democracy Dawns on Africa

Published on 8th February 2010

 "The increase in the number of mobile cellular subscriptions over the last five years has defied all predictions and Africa remains the region with the highest mobile growth rate," according to an ITU document "Information Society Statistical Profiles 2009: Africa." Photo courtesy
Trends in the African telecom industry show that in the course of 2010, we could see a massive injection of technology, that could radically transform the communications infrastructure on the continent. Intoxicated by mobile technology, Africans along with the rest of the world continue to crave for more. 

The telecom industry in Africa has grown considerably and could be given an even bigger boost during the World Cup games, when demand surges, as consumers accessing the latest news using mobile devices. If the trend is sustained long after the world cup and the predictions of experts in the telecom sector are borne out, Africa could emerge as a significant frontier for growth as the world comes out of the recession. 

The past five years have seen the use of mobile phones in Africa increase exponentially - the fastest in the world – with 38% growth in 2007, placing the continent ahead of the Middle-East which stands at 33%. Nigeria has been at the forefront with 70 million users followed by South Africa with over 45 million subscribers. Just a decade ago, the African Telecoms industry accounted for only 2% of the world’s phone lines. 

Unlike other forms of communication – fixed telephone lines for instance - mobile phones have transformed an entire generation, allowing people the flexibility of doing things wirelessly and instantaneously. A goat herder in a rural area can now negotiate the sale of his animals on a mobile phone, while in another more urbanised setting, a business man can use the same device as a portable office.  

Most people in business are now using their mobiles as a platform to reach out to potential markets. Farmers in Kenya have quadrupled their earnings as they now have access to information on potential markets and prices passed on to them by the Kenya Commodities Exchange via their mobile phones. With no middlemen involved, buyers and sellers are linked to domestic as well as global markets. People who previously might never have had access to this sort of technology are now empowered. 

As smart phones - packed with their plethora of functions - become more affordable in developed countries, it is hoped that this technological platform will eventually become widely available in developing countries, ushering in “digital democracy” and making it difficult for some governments to restrict the flow of information.  

Internet-enabled hand-sets are already being used to access mobile websites, with page views up 374% over the past year. A study by Oslo based mobile software developer Opera, recently revealed that news sources such as CNN and BBC are among the most

visited sites in Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana and Zambia.

With Chinese firms producing affordable hand-sets which can do neat things like receive television broadcasts, a distribution network that covers a huge chunk of the developing world has been established by Chinese manufacturers. Some of the hand-sets are capable of handling two SIM cards and allow the user to have two separate phone numbers on one hand-set. While some argue that certain Chinese made hand-sets are sub-standard, this will not curb the insatiable appetite for these devices which possess innovative features. 

Despite Africa being ranked as a rising star in the mobile telecom market, with mobile usage rising at a faster rate than any other place on the planet, the continent is blighted by poor infrastructure with 80% of the population living without electricity. Africa would undoubtedly be propelled further with properly maintained infrastructure - roads, electricity, education and health services - which at present, reduce business productivity by as much as 40%. 

The success of the African Telecoms industry is owed much to investors who have strategically positioned themselves and are heavily involved in the provision of privately operated cellular networks.  

According to the global research company Frost and Sullivan, "Africa has garnered new interest from investors over the last year, as the economic slowdown in developed economies highlighted the growth potential on the continent. Many sectors in Africa have continued to shine despite the global economic turmoil.” 

Furthermore, analysts predict that in 2010 we could see Middle-East and Indian-based telecommunications companies continue their penetration into the continent. Recent reports coming out of Africa have revealed that Zain Zambia, a telecom company, plans to spend more on upgrading existing equipment and new technology in 2010, as well as improve its mobile internet service across Zambia. 

All this reflects a broader trend of how a continued boom in African telecommunications, alongside improved infrastructure could help close the digital divide between developed countries and developing countries. There is growing sentiment that the mobile phone sector is one of the real growth engines that could play a catalystic role in moving the continent several steps forward. 

By Kabukabu Ikwueme. 

Kabukabu Ikwueme is a British based freelance writer and tutor.

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