Operators, developers, content providers and investors in Africa’s tech industry
all gathered together last week for AfricaCom, one of highlights of the tech calendar in
Africa. The battle cry ‘The winds of change have arrived”, by Rlabs founder Marlon Parker echoed through the halls.
And it is mobile that is blowing this wind. With over 750 million mobile subscribers
across the continent, in Africa, it’s mobile first.
Many people own several phones and multiple sim cards, in order to take advantage
of different tariffs favouring friends and family. So it is no surprise that mobile
demand has been growing at 50% year on year in Sub Saharan Africa. In Zimbabwe
and Nigeria, mobile accounts for over half of all web traffic – compared to a ten
percent global average. But it’s not just the numbers that matter. “People on mobile
are more engaged”, said Facebook’s Nicola D’Elia. “They spend more time and share
more content so mobile is a great opportunity.” And mobile ads perform better than
those on desktop.
But Facebook doesn’t dominate. South Africa’s homegrown social networking
platform MXit runs neck and neck with big boy, with over 10 million subscribers
across the continent. Jesse Green, founder of UbuntuDeal.co.za, believes the future
of social is with locally developed platforms including 2go, and bozza.mobi. This
remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure; mobile allows more people to be more
social in more places.
What about the other 3 billion people?
Yet infrastructural limitations mean there is a massive disparity between urban
and rural areas. This gap offers a great opportunity for providers who are looking
to find a way to jump straight in with 3g and 4g networks. They are all chasing
what they see as a potential growth market but until now the costs to do this have
been prohibitive. Yet when a 10% increase in ICT penetration has the potential to
generate a 1pt growth in a country’s GDP the question of how to reach the currently
underserved ‘Other 3 billion’ is now on everyone’s mind.
Satellite is traditionally expensive and fibres challenging and costly to lay in
landlocked countries. So Omar Trujillo, of O3b networks took delegates through his
03b will be launching 12 new satellites in 2013. These will be smaller and closer to
earth than traditional satellites allowing economies of scale with multiple launches.
By keeping their set up costs low, the company aims to offer better quality data at
lower prices to more people. Other providers are looking at providing solar powered
internet kiosks in hard to reach areas.
These are just some of the steps operators are taking to reach underserved
communities. But what about the content that needs to be offered to these
From Crystal Meths dealer to head of R&D?
“The increase in mobile penetration needs to be backed up with quality products
and great content”, Facebook’s D’Elia stresses. Africa is currently one of the biggest
creators of YouTube content and there is no denying entertainment leads the way.
However the social and health benefits offered via basic handsets, broadband, or 4G,
are hard to ignore.
Dr Loren Treisman, Executive of Indigo Trust, investors in ICT, says ‘Mobile
technology is transforming the development sector. Platforms are giving citizens a
voice and empowering activists to demand change in their communities. In South
Africa, a project by [telcoms operator] Cell Life is enabling Cape Town’s citizens to
send text, audio and video reports outlining [social problems] using SMS, Twitter,
MXit, email and web’.
Marlon Parker of Rlabs who is championing much of this change is himself behind
Jamiix, a mobile counseling services, which delivers drug and unemployment support
information to neglected communities. He cites the example of his head of R&D who
changed his life around thanks to the information he could get through his phone.
My cow is your cow
So whether it’s the iCow app, which provides dairy farmers with timely advice
on how to care for cattle through their phone, substance abuse support or
unemployment advice, mobile is delivering content to the underserved …all at the
press of a thumb. Marlon’s vision is that this can give many hope.
It seems that for whatever reason it’s a vision that many share as mobile and social
media pushes further up the telcoms food chain. In a recent survey of goods valued
by 18-24 year olds across South Africa, the majority listed bread as the top essential
item. Blackberry came second. Diapers were at number 4. And that’s no sh*t.