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Rwanda pushes Africa towards universal smartphone access

RWANDA’S latest gadget financing scheme is setting a precedent in Africa as the East African state sets its sights on 100% smartphone penetration by 2027. The move is supported by the rapid growth in smartphone sales across the continent.

PROGRESSIVE policy reforms and the influx of budget-friendly smartphones are steering Africa towards complete digital connectivity in just over a decade.

Rwanda’s recently-announced, three-year target is the most ambitious on the continent, although statistics show that other nations are also rapidly closing in on similar milestones.

As part of Kigali’s innovative funding scheme, citizens can obtain handsets at the subsidised price of US$16, complemented by a data plan costing just US$1 for 1GB, valid for 30 days and inclusive of unlimited text messaging.

“We are optimistic that in the next three years, at least every citizen will have this level of access that allows them to benefit directly,” Communications Minister Paula Ingabire told reporters in Davos.

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Smartphone penetration, along with low data tariffs and investments, is expected to turbocharge Africa’s telecoms sector over the next four years, with telecoms the continent’s fastest-growing sector ahead of healthcare and tourism.

“The expansion of telecoms across the African continent is central to driving economic growth and senior business executives clearly agree as they rank it well ahead of other major sectors of the economy,” said Micky Watkins, CEO of World Mobile.

GSMA, the trade body that represents the interests of mobile network operators worldwide, anticipates that at least 88% of Africans will own a mobile phone – most of them a smartphone – by 2030.

That’s a 37% jump from last year’s October figures.

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However, a 2021 Afrobarometer survey across 34 African countries showed significant variations in mobile phone ownership.

Five countries boasted over 94% ownership, with Gabon and Morocco at 96%, and Côte d’Ivoire, Mauritius, and eSwatini at 94%.

Meanwhile, 24 countries had 75-93% ownership, while some of the continent’s fastest growing economies, including Niger, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Angola remained below 75%. The continental average is 84%.

“So, as you can see, there is a long journey ahead. And progress can only happen if we come together as an industry to break down the barriers to mobile internet adoption – most pressingly, lack of affordability and low levels of digital skills – and close the divide,” said Max Cuvellier, GSMA’s, Head of Mobile For Development.

Digital news platform Semafor recently reported that Transsion, the top smartphone seller in Africa, posted the highest annual growth in smartphone shipments in 2023 of the top five phone makers in the world.

In the second quarter of 2023, Transsion, which makes Tecno, Itel, and Infinix, saw its highest sales in Africa, with the continent contributing to 57% of its total sales.

Last year, Counterpoint Research reported a significant surge in South Africa’s smartphone shipments, with a 73% year-on-year increase in the third quarter and a 44% rise from the previous quarter, driven by the expansion of major Chinese manufacturers in the country.

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This comes amid a growing appetite for online services and the expanding scope of e-commerce in Africa.

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Increased smartphone penetration is expected to unlock new avenues for growth in various sectors, potentially transforming the continent’s economic landscape.

However, the path to universal smartphone reach is not without challenges. Rural areas, in particular, face significant obstacles in terms of both network coverage and affordability.

Creative solutions, such as pay-as-you-go models and microfinance options for smartphone purchases, as well as space-based data solutions like Starlink, are being explored to address these issues.

Meanwhile, in African cities and major towns, there’s a noticeable increase in the number of people using flagship smartphones such as Apple’s iPhones, Samsungs, and Google Pixels.

While feature phones still have a significant presence, trends indicate that smartphones are set to surpass them in the next decade, signalling a major shift in the continent’s mobile technology landscape.

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By SETH ONYANGO, BIRD STORY AGENCY

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