Mobile penetration as measured by the number of active Sims in use in sub-Saharan Africa has reached 61% of the population. But this masks the reality that fewer than one in three people in the region actually owns a mobile phone. According to a new research report from the GSMA, an industry lobby group that counts most of the world’s mobile operators as members, only 31% of sub-Saharan Africans has a cellphone.
This is the lowest penetration in the world. The global average is close to one in two, while in developed markets it is four in five. About 253m people in the region have a Sim card — only half of the headline number of 502m active Sims, according to Peter Lyons, GSMA public policy director for Africa and the Middle East.
“This means we’ve just scratched the surface,” says Lyons. “But the next 100m to 200m unique subscribers will be much more difficult to reach [and] industry and government are going to have to think a bit outside the box. Business as usual isn’t necessarily going to work.” Lyons says the big gap between unique subscribers and the total number of active Sims can be attributed to a number of factors, including movement between networks by users as they chase special offers and promotions offered by the mobile operators.
“Multiple Sim ownership is very common, especially in cities,” he says. “To have a meaningful long-term impact, we have to get to the next two-thirds, especially by targeting women. Women’s use of mobile devices will be key to having a long-term effect.” According to the GSMA, women in the region are 23% less likely to have a mobile phone than men. Women are 43% less likely than men to have access to the Internet. Mobile penetration rates remain low in sub-Saharan Africa, largely because of an affordability gap, but in some markets like Ethiopia — which is dominated by a state-owned monopoly operator — coverage is also lacking outside the urban areas, contributing to the problem. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, average revenue per user is equivalent to 30% of average consumer income. In South Africa, it’s 4%, while Kenya is at 18% and Nigeria is at 16%, according to Lyons. “To get the sweet spot where more developed markets are, you have to be around 1%.” The affordability of devices is also a problem for many on the continent. “Smartphone penetration in South Africa is about 18%, which is 1% higher than the global average, but across sub-Saharan Africa — including South Africa — it’s 4%. By 2017, we expect 45% smartphone penetration for South Africa versus about 20% for sub-Saharan Africa.”
Despite low penetration levels of mobile phones, mobile already contributes more than 6% of GDP in sub-Saharan Africa, higher than any other comparable region globally, according to the GSMA. This number is forecast to rise to over 8% of regional GDP by 2020.