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3 facts about connectivity in Sub-Saharan Africa

5 Mins.

Connectivity in Sub-Saharan Africa is defined by local patterns of consumption dictated by the region’s on-the-ground realities. Among other things, the market is heavily weighted toward physical SIM cards. There is also a corresponding history of adaptable entrepreneurship and innovation, such as the rise of M-PESA in Kenya. Recent advances in the IoT and the growth of freight haulage by road point to a new direction for connectivity in the region.

In order to better serve the needs of developing populations around the world, the United Nations has identified “achieving universal connectivity by 2030” as a primary goal.1 Sub-Saharan Africa is home to more than a billion people, a large proportion of whom live in low-income and lower-middle-income countries.2 This huge population is not uniformly connected to the internet, however. Further, there is some evidence that not all users are utilizing their connectivity to its full capacity.

While 40% of the adult population is now connected to mobile internet services, “another 44% live in areas covered by mobile broadband networks, but do not yet use mobile internet services (the usage gap),” stated a 2022 report.3 An even more current study notes that about 175 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa live in areas that don’t have mobile broadband coverage.4 Here’s another number: only 49% of connections in the area were being utilized by smartphones in 2022.5 Though this is expected to grow to 61% by 2025,6 it is still not huge. This low penetration points to the fact that smartphones are still outside the reach of half the population.

However, a willingness to adapt fuels innovation. One such innovation that may be familiar to readers elsewhere is the M-PESA, an SMS-based money transfer service that was rolled out by Safaricom, a major Kenyan mobile network operator (MNO) in 2007. M-PESA doesn’t require users to have smartphones or bank accounts to function. Thus, it takes two critical issues that face most other forms of digital payment in the Sub-Saharan region out of the equation. These issues are

  1. a lack of internet penetration and
  2. significant numbers of the population being un- or underbanked.

While illustrating that Sub-Saharan Africa has its own unique characteristics when it comes to connectivity, this also points to the ingenuity of those who live within that telecommunication market, and who deal with its realities every day.

Two women using their smartphones at a market

Innovation finds a way

“Opportunity is important, but necessity is a huge driver as well,” says Jerusha Rooplall, Managing Director G+D Mobile Security South Africa. Entrepreneurship in the parts of the continent that are within her remit – southern and eastern-central Africa and parts of western Africa, including Nigeria – thrives, often despite the conditions that face entrepreneurs. She points to how chronic power cuts in South Africa – “load shedding,” in the local parlance – led to a bustling market in the sale of generators and, later, smaller battery-powered inverters and uninterruptible power supply (UPS) devices.

Kenya, home of Safaricom and known as an early adopter of tech at every level, is also a place where small businesses prosper. A man with a motorbike could well have a side job as a delivery person for an outfit such as Takealot. This throws up a business opportunity for a growing number of people to offer their services as delivery people. All they require is a vehicle with a box they can put the goods in, and a device to gain internet access, so the delivery can be tracked. In a similar vein, and on a bigger scale, the COVID pandemic drove many South African chain retailers to offer online shopping and home deliveries, as in many other countries worldwide.

In the absence of smartphones, Rooplall points out, a market sprang up for small routers. This is driven by interest from big providers, as the small business is where the individual MNO’s base is. This development is something she finds of great interest. “These aren’t big routers that you might have in a café, which covers 50 people. These smaller ones help build small businesses. This is what’s going to build the economies of our region.”

“Obviously, traffic must still move. Goods must still be tracked. The chain must stay flexible, in order to deal with questions of which road is open, on which day, in which state.“
Jerusha Rooplall
Managing Director G+D Mobile Security South Africa

Let’s stay physical?

Another interesting aspect of the Sub-Saharan region is its preference for physical SIM cards. Part of this is historical: customers identify their providers by the color of the SIM card, and will pick them accordingly in a store. Even in South Africa, the market tends toward prepaid, pay-as-you-go contracts at low rates. There isn’t a lot of appetite for cutting-edge tech in a consumer mobile device.

Demand for eSIMs in mobile phones is in its infancy (though it will grow). The reasons for this include the cost-conscious nature of the region. Smartphone makers concentrate their energies on introducing more affordable versions of their products. MNOs also face an issue in the cost of ramping up their infrastructure to embrace the new tech. Smaller operators may reference a need on their part for “help” from their bigger partners, for example, or even a nation and its financial muscle to help fuel investments in critical infrastructure, such as towers. 

Of course, those who can afford smartwatches and the like will find support for them, but this is still a niche need. As Rooplall points out, however, there are other growth areas for eSIMs.

A man tries to get reception with his smartphone

Tracking the future

A look at the map illustrates an issue for logistics planners on the African continent. Not only are the distances vast, but also a large number of people live in nations with no coastal access. Freight transport within Africa is still heavily reliant on trucks transporting goods from ports such as Mombasa in Kenya, Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and Durban and Cape Town in South Africa to inland nations and regions. 

Rooplall lists some critical problems facing the logistics chain. There is the question of negotiating border crossings, with the attendant issues of customs, tolls, and taxes. Then there is the fact that different nations have different mobile networks, so expensive roaming charges may be incurred. Further, conflict is a real and present threat to every aspect of life in some places, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic. Road traffic isn’t exempt from these dangers.
“Obviously, traffic must still move,” she says. “Goods must still be tracked, and perishables monitored for temperature, humidity, and the like. The chain must stay flexible, in order to deal with questions of which road is open, on which day, in which state.” 
Organizations such as the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) do sterling work to remove obstacles facing road and other traffic, states Rooplall. COMESA’s constituent states recognize the need for barrier-free movement and are doing their best to provide the structure for this to happen.

At the more granular level, however, advances in the Internet of Things (IoT) help logistics providers answer the other questions before them. Innovations such as smart labels help freight forwarders track their boxes in real time. The labels themselves can contain information on value, temperature, etc. There is a huge amount of data available now. Processing all that data is an exciting new field. The market is only going to get bigger, as more and more goods are transported across borders.

None of this works without seamless connectivity across borders and mobile networks. Organizations such as G+D have built up extensive networks of cooperation with MNOs and other providers in the region, which G+D’s clients and other partners can utilize to smooth out their logistics chains. This is especially true when it comes to staying connected, no matter where one’s goods may be physically located. 

G+D has also made significant investments to further strengthen its presence in the IoT track-and-trace market. G+D’s background and experience in mobile networks and secure, trusted connectivity make it ideally suited to be the partner of choice in the Sub-Saharan region.

Given the flexible, entrepreneurial nature of people in the Sub-Saharan region, we can expect many more such innovative solutions to the unique issues that this market presents, now and in the future.

Key takeaways

  • Small businesses and microbusinesses drive a lot of innovation on the continent. For instance, small routers for delivery people fuel demand for connectivity.
  • Connectivity in Sub-Saharan Africa is very hardware-based; physical SIMs are still the norm.
  • As freight by road within the continent is a significant part of haulage, innovations such as track and trace via smart labels (among other solutions) are a key growth area within connectivity.
  1. Achieving universal connectivity by 2030,

  2. The World Bank in Africa“, World Bank, updated April 5, 2023

  3. „The Mobile Economy: Sub-Saharan Africa 2022“, GSMA, 2022

  4. „Sub-Saharan Africa“, Q1 2023, GSMA, 2023

  5. „The Mobile Economy: Sub-Saharan Africa 2022“, GSMA, 2022

  6. Ibid

Published: 12/12/2023

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