Explosive growth in mobile connectivity has already transformed the lives of millions of people across Africa. According to GSMA research, Sub-Saharan Africa has been the world’s fastest-growing mobile region over the last five years and is forecast to continue to lead global growth through 2020. By then, the number of unique mobile subscribers in the region is expected to pass the half billion mark as mobile services become increasingly affordable and accessible to millions of currently unconnected citizens.
As government and business leaders prepare to convene in Cape Town to “Reimagine Africa’s Future” at the World Economic Forum on Africa 2015, now is an opportune time to examine the impact of mobile as a critical enabler of socio-economic development and the conditions required for further growth in the region.
In 2013, the mobile industry contributed 5.4 per cent of overall GDP in Sub-Saharan Africa. By 2020, it is expected to contribute US $104 billion to the economy, representing an estimated 6.2 per cent of the region’s projected GDP. The mobile ecosystem is also a significant source of employment in the region, directly employing nearly 2.5 million people in 2013 and indirectly supporting a further 3.7 million jobs.
These statistics demonstrate the success story of mobile growth in Africa to date. However, governments and business stakeholders still have a great deal of work to do if Africa is to fully reap the benefits of mobile for citizens and businesses alike.
Sub-Saharan Africa remains the world’s least penetrated mobile region. By June 2015, just 40 per cent of the region’s population had a mobile subscription. Despite strong projected growth in mobile connections, this figure is forecast to rise to just 49 per cent by 2020. Beyond voice services, access to mobile broadband for all will be vital for socio-economic development.
Over the coming years, millions of citizens will access the Internet for the first time via low-cost smartphones and mobile broadband networks, providing an essential gateway to a wide range of services. Mobile brings access to healthcare where there are no doctors, access to education where there are no teachers, access to financial services where there are no banks. There is clearly huge potential, but multi-stakeholder action is needed on several fronts if we are to make mobile broadband access ubiquitous.
Key to optimising Africa’s mobile opportunity is building a stable regulatory and business environment. This includes clear and transparent spectrum management processes to support the mobile industry’s investment in network infrastructure. Today, mobile networks remain the most scalable source of connectivity worldwide and between 2015 and 2020, the industry is forecast to invest US $84 billion in capital expenditure in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Spectrum harmonisation and the release of Digital Dividend spectrum to mobile are crucial in meeting African governments’ objectives of expanding mobile coverage. Tackling high levels of taxation in certain markets will make services affordable to a greater cross-section of society. Collaboration with application developers and educational institutions to increase digital literacy and create local content will help bring more people online and give them access to the information they want.
Ultimately, mobile broadband empowers people and businesses. It has unmatched potential to accelerate socio-economic development and bridge the digital divide worldwide. Urgent action to remove barriers to mobile broadband deployment will encourage investment and drive the next wave of growth and innovation that will foster digital inclusion and support future economic growth for the African continent.