For the past 15 years, Africa watchers have been waiting for her mobile phone industry to reach a critical landmark – almost full saturation of the market. This milestone may be close at hand, as recent news and data show. In June 2018, Kenyan mobile subscriptions reached 98% penetration, a 13% jump over the previous year, the highest ever recorded, even with all the caveats of youthful demographics and many users owning more than one line.
And, it isn’t just Kenya, long known to be early adopters of innovation and technology. The African mobile market, as a whole, maybe reaching saturation point as the latest IDC data shows. Phone sales continue to show signs of decline. Unlike previous slowdowns of smartphone sales1 which were economy related and feature phones continued selling, this time the decline can be seen in both categories, implying the great African mobile subscriptions growth boom may now be over.
Even Nigeria, recently found to have more people living below the poverty line than India, has achieved more than 80% mobile phone penetration, with hopes that the end of 2018 will see 100%.
The number of mobile subscribers grew astronomically in 2017 and its penetration increased to 84% in comparison with 53% in 2016. With an increase in the number of affordable phones entering the Nigerian market and looking at the trajectory of growth between 2016 & 2017 (31% growth year-on-year), there is a strong indication that by the end of 2018, there might be a 100% penetration of mobile subscriptions.2
Healthier West African economies such as Ghana and Ivory Coast have already crossed the magic 100% threshold, as has conflict riven Mali.
Achieving this landmark has not been consistent across the continent, and some countries like Malawi and Chad are still below the halfway mark. However, it is known that Africa may never achieve the same level of penetration as seen elsewhere, given that 40% of the continent’s population is under the age of 163. And so, the current decline in new phone sales can already be considered the signal of a mature market, showing signs of saturation.
From the caterpillar to the butterfly
In a very short generation, Africans have gone from being mostly isolated – from each other, and the rest of the world – to being plugged in, all because of this very powerful device in their hands. The decline of phone sales, or the slowing down of subscriber growth numbers, should be cause for jubilation. The continent is now connected to the rest of the world, and Africans are talking to African across the span of mountains and deserts. Traditional pastoralists receive satellite data informing them of the best locations for forage for their livestock, and they can access insurance in times of famine and drought. Urban youth are trading bitcoins, while their mothers gather in social media groups to trade in goods and information. The entire operating environment of the African economic ecosystem has been transformed.
Where just over ten years ago, Nokia’s greatest concern was how to design ever more affordable and robust mobile devices which could connect people across languages and literacy barriers, now we have a population that has a decade of experience in information technology, regardless of their education levels. Even the most remote or marginalized have seen the phone, and can access its use, through intermediaries and access points. Digital Africa has become a daily matter of fact rather than an unusual achievement for the development crowd. You can see it in the tenor of the research articles, and read the difference between the way the growth of the mobile ecosystem was covered in 20054 and the way its taken for granted now.
The end of an era – double digit growth of the African mobile market – signals the beginning of a whole new phase of development and opportunity – a connected continent, ready for commerce and communication with the world.
Ten years of transformation
Over the past decade, mobile phone ownership has gone from a novelty to commonplace. It has bridged the rural – urban divide, strengthening linkages, both social and commercial. In turn, innovation diffusion pathways have proliferated from the urban centers, and the adoption of new ideas and goods has accelerated, changing aspirations and expectations, particularly among the younger generation. The global African does not need to leave her childhood village in order to speak to the rest of the world or be recognized for her achievements. Social media is there to give him a voice, and a platform.
It is this new reality that has not yet be recognized by the long established experts on Africa and its many varied challenges and unmet needs. The mindset, worldviews, and the consumer culture have changed far more rapidly than the now obsolete snapshot of the poverty stricken, marginalized African that media and researchers base their assumptions and their writing on. Policymakers and programme designers are even less in the know, and the gap between generations has never been wider.
On the upside is a whole new playing ground – my friend and colleague Michael Kimani calls it the informal economy’s digital generation. Young people like himself, graduating with university degrees into a business landscape without the jobs to hire them, are turning to the platform made available by their smartphones to establish themselves and earn a living. In the four short years I’ve known Michael, I’ve seen him grown and evolve into the voice of African blockchain and cryptocurrency, soon to be an educator on the subject, and already organized as the Chairman of the Blockchain Association of Kenya.
“What a great time to be alive,” Michael’s joyful voice still rings in my ear after our call last week. The digital future is all around him, a playground for him to build and make whatever his mind’s eye can envision.
The end of the world for a caterpillar (the decline of sales & subscriptions) is the birth of a whole new one for a butterfly (the global digital African with a powerful computer in his hands).
We need to throw a party and celebrate!
1 Smartphone sales, driven by more affordable Chinese brands, may continue to see growth, but as the IDC states, this growth may come from those transitioning from featurephones.
2 Jumia Mobile Report 2018 in Nigeria
3 The Mobile Economy: Sub-Saharan Africa 2018, GSMA Intelligence
4 Cellphones Catapult Rural Africa to 21st Century, August 2005, New York Times