The Significance of Mobile Web in Africa and its Future

Will Mutua's picture

Mobile phone technology has revolutionized the African continent in so many ways. The mobile phone has been for many an African the first real (or at the very least, most sophisticated) computing device they have encountered that has connected them in a significant manner to other people across borders and across time, hence becoming a significant game changer in the dynamics of this continent - socially, economically and politically.

Back in 2007, Erik Hersman wrote an article on his blog on the phenomenal growth of mobile in Africa. At that time the mobile penetration rate stood at roughly 30% and about 280 million mobile subscribers on the continent, and projections indicated a steady increase in penetration and subscriber growth.

Source: African Mobile Factbook (2007) - Africa Telcom News

Even at that time, close to 5 years back, Africa had already established herself as the fastest growing mobile market in the world with Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt leading the pack. Fast forward to 2011 and Mobile Monday's Mobile Africa Report and let's see how the numbers stack up against the projections:

  • The number of mobile subscribers is now estimated as above 500 million
  • The biggest mobile phone markets are Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya and Ghana

What's more interesting is that according to the Mobile Africa Report 2011 from Mobile Monday, the number of people with access to mobile will surpass those with access to electricity at home:

By the year 2015, the mobile network will break the electricity barrier in more than four major regions. Sub-Saharan Africa will have more people with mobile network access than with access to electricity at home. The off -grid, on-Net population will reach 138 million by 2015

One of the key changes that the mobile phone has brought about is the fact that, mobile technology has enabled more and more Africans to come online. While most Africans do not have the luxury of owning a home computer or having access to a desktop computer, the vast majority have access to mobile phones. Mobile data has become a cash cow for mobile network operators across the continent and has also become a key competitive area for the operators. For example, very recently, in Kenya, the largest MNO, Safaricom made a move to slash internet tariffs by up to 150%.

Statistics in many countries show that the number of people who access the internet from their mobile phones far exceeds that of those who surf the net from computers. In Kenya, for example, over 90% of the people who access the internet do it from mobile phones. This trend became quite clear early on in the continent's 'mobile' history. In 2009, the Guardian ran an article showing just how fast the mobile web was growing in Africa. Even then, Facebook was a premier destination for those browsing on the mobile web. Perhaps, the effect Facebook has had on drawing Africans and particularly the younger, 'cheetah', generation online is not given as much attention as it should.

One other factor that has greatly influenced the ability and even encouraged Africans to go online from their mobile phones is the Opera Mini browser. The experience of browsing the internet from standard mobile phone browsers can be rather disappointing and could put one off. And that is where Opera's mobile browser made the difference, affording one a great way to surf the mobile web. Indeed, in Africa, on the mobile web, Opera is the cavalry

"The mobile Web is critical in the region where mobile phone penetration is substantially higher than PC penetration. The widespread availability of mobile phones means the mobile Web can reach tens of millions more than the wired Web," says Opera co-founder Jon von Tetzchner in the report.

According to the 2011 Mobile Africa Report, mobile data in Africa has gone from growth to boom:

Networking giant Cisco predicts an exponential growth in mobile data traffic in Africa. The Middle East and Africa are expected to experience the largest regional growth, withan expected 129 percent compound annual growth rate projected in the Cisco Visual Networking Index (VNI) Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast for 2010 to 2015.

 Nigeria in particular has led the entire continent in the uptake of Opera Mini, recently dislodging the Ukraine as the 4th largest Opera Mini user.

All indications are that the growth trend will continue into the future across the continent, for example, official Kenyan industry statistics show that mobile internet subscribers will grow by approximately 843% for the 12 months to September 2011. And more and more Africans will find that they are exposed to a vastly connected world, influenced by more than the influencing factors in their immediate locality - how will this continue to shape the continent? - Socially, culturally, economically, politically...?


The (in)significance of growing mobile media in Africa?

Dear Will,
thank-you for your update on the fast growth of mobile technology.
You are asking how this will influence the continent. First of all, the penetration curve you displayed will reach its limit. The curve we need to follow next is the amount of use of mobile phones in daily lives, which will show how much the mobile technology is affecting the various facets of society which you listed.
Some people think that improved technology does not necessarily improve society. Here in Africa using mobile phones could siphon much needed funds out of needy communities, who now purchase airtime instead of feeding their children. On the other hand mobile connectivity can bring people together to share know-how and to obtain information. This could enable people to generate more resources than what they need to spend on using this technology.
My perception is that the natural scenario would be that by default people are not better off through this new technology, but that the preferred scenario is that when people help each other to utilize and implement the technology for improving society, all can win. Then mobile phones can move from being insignificant to becoming significant forces of positive change.
Please keep this conversation going - or should we rather start chatting on our mobile phones...?

Rudolf Kabutz
Futuring through vision to partner creatively for stratgic impact by focussing on media in Africa.


My view of mobile, as of any other technology, is simply that these are tools. We can't think of them outside of the human context. Ultimately the success of any technology is hinged on how well it serves to improve the human condition.

The use and abuse of mobile

Dear Will
yes, mobile is a tool, yet at times they are used well to improve our human condition. Yet at other times they are abused so the quality of the condition of people is decreased.
Here is Africa we need communities to network together to come up with innovative uses and applications of the mobile technology that can make life easier and more efficient. In a way we need to coach each other in the best media skills and methodologies.
And on top of that we will do well by developing applications that can help people in need. Some creative solutions have been initiated relating to health care. We need to be creative, innovative and pro-active.
Where do you see mobile playing a significant role in the lives of people in Africa?

Rudolf Kabutz
Futuring through vision to partner creatively for stratgic impact by focussing on media in Africa.