The mobile industry in Africa continues to deliver the required connectivity that enables access to a wide range of services addressing various social and economic issues. But with more than half of the population yet to subscribe to a mobile service, the challenge for Africa is to overcome the barriers to connecting the unconnected and unlock the economic potential of increased connectivity.

Industry overview

At the end of 2015, 46% of the population in Africa subscribed to mobile services, equivalent to more than half a billion people. The region’s three dominant markets – Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa – together accounted for around a third of the region’s total subscriber base. Subscriber growth rates are now beginning to slow and will increasingly converge with the global average, as affordability challenges become a key barrier. Over the next five years, an additional 168 million people will be connected by mobile services across Africa, reaching 725 million unique subscribers by 2020.

Subscribers across Africa are increasingly migrating to mobile broadband services, driven by network rollouts and mobile operator device and data strategies. Mobile broadband connections accounted for a quarter of total connections at the end of 2015, but will rise to almost two-thirds by 2020. 3G will be the dominant mobile broadband technology over the next five years, although 4G network launches are gaining traction.

Mobile driving growth

In 2015, mobile technologies and services generated 6.7% of GDP in Africa, a contribution that amounted to around $150 billion of economic value. In the period to 2020 we expect this to increase to more than $210 billion (7.6% of GDP) as countries benefit from the improvements in productivity and efficiency brought about by increased take-up of mobile services.

The mobile ecosystem supported 3.8 million jobs in 2015. This includes workers directly employed in the ecosystem and jobs indirectly supported by the economic activity generated by the sector. The mobile sector also makes a substantial contribution to the funding of the public sector, with $17 billion raised in 2015 in the form of general taxation. The number of jobs supported will increase to 4.5 million by 2020, while the tax contribution to public funding will rise to $20.5 billion.

Mobile addressing social challenges

Mobile technology continues to play a central role in addressing a range of social challenges, including unregistered populations, the digital divide and financial inclusion. In September 2015, the UN introduced its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to the world — a 17-point plan to end poverty, combat climate change and fight injustice and inequality by 2030. The GSMA and mobile operators are united in support for helping achieve the SDGs in Africa, leveraging the power of mobile networks to accelerate this journey in a way that no other technology can. Across the region, mobile is already playing a key role in tackling various social and economic challenges around poverty eradication, agriculture, health, education, gender equality, water resource management and sanitation, affordable energy access, employment, infrastructure, inequality reduction, safer cities and climate change.

How to deliver greater connectivity

Africa is heavily dependent on mobile networks to deliver the connectivity that its hundreds of millions of citizens and companies need. The capacity and coverage of any wireless network is largely determined by the radio frequencies it is able to use. If policymakers across the region step up efforts to allow mobile operators to gain access to the spectrum they need, Africa will enjoy major social and economic benefits. Spectrum has no intrinsic value but can be a very valuable resource when put to productive use. Policymakers in Africa need to ensure that the low-frequency spectrum below 1 GHz is employed to extend mobile broadband coverage across their countries. Reducing the digital divide between urban and rural areas will boost economic activity, help to alleviate poverty, improve healthcare and education, expand financial inclusion and enhance agriculture.