Mobile phones will account for almost one-tenth of African GDP by the end of the decade, as mobile broadband connections triple in five years, underlining how the explosive growth in the telecoms industry is having a major economic, social and political impact on the continent.
Market analysts Ovum expect mobile broadband connections, which stood at 147m in 2014, to account for a substantial share of the mobile market, forecasting a rise to 76% at the end of 2020, up from just 17% in 2014.
The figures underpin the extraordinary rate at which the mobile industry has grown across the continent over the past decade and a half. The sector contributed $100bn (Â£76bn) to sub-Saharan Africaâs economy in 2014 and is expected to account for three times that in 2020.
As handsets and data become more affordable, greater accessibility to mobiles â which have outpaced other forms of communications infrastructure on the continent â is changing the way in which public services are delivered and business and politics are being conducted.
âThis will have a huge democratising effect,â says John Githongo, one of Kenyaâs leading anti-corruption campaigners. âThe growth in access to smartphones leads to the creation of networks that are broader, deeper and more durable than we have seen in the past.
âThe growth in access to smartphones leads to the creation of networks that are broader, deeeper and more durable than we have seen in the past.
âWe are already witnessing a transformation in the way people relate to their governments, as we saw in Zimbabwe recently, where a protest movement sprang simply from a post on the internet that captured the imagination of the public.â He stresses how the mobile technology revolution has improved transparency and given a voice to citizens.
In part, because the old state-run fixed-line telephone companies were inefficient monopolies, many in Africa took up mobiles with great enthusiasm at the start of the last decade.
There are more mobile phones than adults in most African countries, with the number of subscriptions in Kenya, for example, surging from 330,000 in 2001 to 38m in 2016, in a country with a population of nearly 45 million.
In recent years, the rise of mobile internet access is acting as a new game-changer, bringing many online who donât have access to desktop machines or fixed-line broadband.
This growth has fuelled a parallel expansion in the number of innovators and entrepreneurs looking to ride the mobile wave on the continent and opened up an array of uses for mobiles in areas such as business, healthcare and education.
In Ghana, the Mobile Technology for Community Health initiative aims to improve healthcare for pregnant mothers by providing time-specific information about their pregnancies and childcare each week. A separate application enables nurses to collect patient data and upload records to a centralised database to track the progress of patents and identify those who are due for care.
Similar schemes operate in Rwanda, Mozambique and South Africa, while a programme in Nigeria known as Smart has halved the turnaround time for test results for early diagnosis of HIV infection in infants. Using small battery-operated printers and SMS technology, health facilities can receive and print test results without having computers and internet access.
Few advances have been as successful as M-Pesa, a mobile money transfer system introduced in Kenya in 2007.
Seven in 10 adults in Kenya use M-Pesa, making 9m transactions daily. The service has become a popular alternative to cash for numerous businesses and government agencies.
Users register on the system and deposit cash with an agent who then credits the money to a pin-protected digital wallet. They can then use the mobile phone to pay for a taxi ride or settle utility bills or to transfer money to another user, who can withdraw the funds from an M-Pesa agent or a bank ATM.
The system offers everyone from grocers to mechanics a safer way to store their money.
âI have not carried any cash with me for three weeks,â says Bob Collymore, chief executive of Kenyaâs leading telecoms firm, Safaricom, which operates M-Pesa. âThe mobile payment service is hugely convenient because it allows you to make micro payments of as low as 10 US cents and in many ways, it symbolises how mobiles are being used differently in Africa than in other parts of the world. Here, the mobile is one of the central tools that people use to earn a living.â
Collymore says the next challenge for Africa is to produce innovations that could be bolstered to solve digital challenges beyond the continent.
Safaricom is partnering with numerous startups looking for markets outside Kenya. These include Eneza, which sends personalised revision aids to tens of thousands of pupils daily; iCow, a âvirtual midwifeâ for cows that helps farmers to maximise their herdâs breeding potential by tracking their fertility cycle; and M-Kopa, a firm that sells 500 units of small, solar-powered lighting units a day in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ghana and aims to have sold a million units by the end of next year.
Collymore also points to the need to improve digital literacy. âIf our children grow up as digital natives, like the children in the US and the UK and Europe, that makes a huge difference,â he says, referring to an initiative by Safaricom, which is part-owned by Vodafone, to provide free Wi-Fi in primary schools in an attempt to expand internet access to young Kenyans.
Mteto Nyati, chief executive of MTN South Africa, the countryâs second largest mobile operator, makes a similar point about the need to invest in education. âThe education system should be slanted towards being more practical than what we have today. Our education system yields people who are knowledgable about things but not necessarily able to do things.
âWe need to transform our education system and this can only be led by government, but business and the wider community must also play their part.â
Nyati predicts online retail will be the next big thing: âMy sense is that the e-commerce space is going to be key going forward in Africa. But any e-commerce needs to be connected with some kind of logistics â we need to solve logistics challenges. We can do the transactions â people are comfortable using mobile devices but how do you deliver the goods. We need reliable service providers. A combination of those two things will certainly move Africa forward.â
Telecoms pioneer Funke Opeke â founder and chief executive of MainOne, which has played a major role in transforming west Africaâs internet landscape â stresses that better and more affordable access to the internet must also be a priority.
âMobile penetration is high, covering over 60% of the population, and more than 50% of those users have access to the internet. However, service quality is poor, throughput is limited and prices are quite expensive,â Opeke says.
âThe situation is a result of limitations in terrestrial and last mile network infrastructure across the continent with internet delivery occurring primarily via congested mobile networks,â says Opeke, who returned to Nigeria after a 20-year career in the US and in 2010 launched the first privately owned submarine cable system linking west Africa to Europe.
âThe continent will have to develop its own unique set of business models for digital service delivery that are efficient given lower income levels and continued limintations in infrastructure,â she adds.
Su Kahumbu Stephanou, the founder of iCow, says there is reason to be optimistic about Africaâs digital prowess: âThe mobile will help Africa close the digital divide with the rest of the world. We have only begun to scratch the surface in terms of exploiting the huge potential there is in this field.â