The mobile industry in Sub-Saharan Africa continues to scale rapidly, reaching 367 million subscribers in mid-2015. Migration to higher speed networks and smartphones continues apace, with mobile broadband connections set to increase from just over 20% of the connection base today to almost 60% by 2020. Falling device prices are encouraging the rapid adoption of smartphones, with the region set to add more than 400 million new smartphone connections by 2020, by which time the smartphone installed base will total over half a billion.
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Subscriber growth rates are set to slow sharply over the coming years, with growth in the second half of this decade set to be around 7% compared to 14% in the first half. Just under half of the population will have subscribed to a mobile service by 2020, highlighting the challenges that remain in bringing connectivity to unconnected populations across the region. Mobile operators’ revenue growth is also slowing across Sub-Saharan Africa, reflecting slowing subscriber growth but also growing competitive pressures and regulatory action. The challenge for operators is to continue to monetise the ongoing growth in data traffic while expanding mobile coverage to underserved areas, at a time when traditional revenues are under pressure.
Technology innovations have gained momentum in Sub-Saharan Africa over the last five years. Nairobi in Kenya – referred to as ‘Silicon Savannah’ – has been the epicentre of this development and has been leading innovations in areas such as mobile money (M-Pesa) and crowdsourcing (Ushahidi). A number of incubators and accelerators have sprung up across the region, and a flourishing app economy is emerging in the region.
Mobile technology plays a central role in addressing a range of socio-economic developmental challenges across the region, particularly digital and financial inclusion. Greater digital inclusion will drive economic and infrastructure development, increasing productivity and employment across the economy, and will improve access to vital services such as education and healthcare.
The mobile industry is a key driver of economic growth and employment across the region. In 2014, the broader mobile ecosystem generated 5.7% of GDP in Sub-Saharan Africa, a contribution of just over $100 billion in economic value. Migration to mobile broadband and the growth of new services will see this figure increase to 8.2% of GDP by 2020. The mobile ecosystem supported 4.4 million jobs in the region in 2014, a figure that will increase to more than 6 million by 2020. The mobile sector also makes a substantial contribution to the funding of the public sector, with approximately $15 billion raised in 2014 in the form of general taxation, which is set to rise to $20 billion by 2020.
The ongoing vibrancy of the mobile economy in Sub-Saharan Africa depends heavily on the actions of the region’s policy-makers and regulators. Through well-designed regulatory frameworks, governments can nurture and encourage the innovation enabled by mobile technologies and services. There are several major policy levers to drive the development of digital economies. Regulators could release more internationally harmonised spectrum for mobile broadband services, thereby fuelling investments in both greater capacity and wider coverage. Secondly, they could introduce incentives to encourage mobile operators to deploy infrastructure in remote and economically challenging areas. Thirdly, they could revise their taxation policies to encourage adoption and usage of mobile services, together with greater investment in networks.