This is the second in a 4-part series on Africa: The Present frontier. 

Africa straddles two realities. One is underpinned by the belief that Africa is the next frontier and measures the continent’s progress against an expected trajectory and momentum modeled on that which developed economies have followed in the past. As the continent leapfrogged wireline technology to adopt mobile at an astoundingly unexpected rate over the first 5 years of this millenium, it proved a point to the rest of the world. Africa is the present frontier. This is the other reality where the continent has brought to market a number of ‘firsts’. Airtel’s (Celtel at the time) borderless mobile network that features no roaming fees, the envy of European consumers. MPesa, Vodacom’s mobile money platform that has been very successful in Kenya and now growing in Tanzania and other countries.

Mobile Money in Kenya

Airtel Money and MPesa outlets on the outskirts of Nairobi.

According to the GSM Association, there are an estimated 649 million subscribers in Africa and an estimated 86 million being added to this number by the end of 2012 making Africa the world’s second largest mobile market and the fastest growing in the world. Even then, there’s still an estimated $36 billion of untapped revenue from growth in the 25 largest mobile markets on the continent. Unlike in developed nations, 96% of all subscriptions are pre-paid with voice dominating the revenue matrix. In some markets, data is growing considerably fast contributing significant revenues to the operators’ ARPU. Safaricom, for instance, generated just over $1.1b in revenue with voice calls contributing 67% a 1.2% drop on the previous year. Mobile and fixed data on the other hand jumped 81% compared to the previous year as subscribers used their modems and phones more to access the Internet. More Africans are buying mobile devices resulting in more endpoints added to a highly resilient, ubiquitous and geo-aware distribution platform for content and services.

The rise of mobile in Africa has brought with it obvious opportunities as well as a new class of opportunities that probably didn’t quite exist before. Opportunities for non-profits to reach more people at lower costs, governments to provide services more effectively and across larger geographies, for business to reach more customers and scale at lower cost. Mobile is making it possible for small and medium sized enterprises to compete with big business in ways they couldn’t just a few short years ago. Mobile isn’t just changing the operating landscape for consumer/citizen facing organizations, it’s changing the game. The trifecta of fast growing extensive data networks, cheap data-enabled handsets and a fast growing mobile money ecosystem is setting the stage for probably the greatest disruptions to the landscape yet. We are observing the emergence of fascinating opportunities in Africa, many which are providing new growth areas and could potentially power GDP growth further over the coming years. Here are a few;

  1. OpenGov and mGov - Govenments can now potentially reach more citizens than ever before with services that don’t require physical access to government offices. For instance, mobile allows governments to provide birth registration, community policing and even payment of taxes (Tanzania allows the use of MPesa for tax payments) at very low cost. It is also possible to now involve citizens in their own governance and scale programs further faster and cheaper than ever before. These also presents new opportunities for businesses that can provide governments with the tools they need to get the job done. Socrata and Knoema, for instance, provide visualization and analysis platforms for the Kenya government’s open data initiative and the African Development Bank Open Data for Africa portals respectively. However,  there are still opportunities for developers who can build applications that help communicate public data in a way that citizens can easily understand on mobile phones.
  2. mHealth & mEducation - There are, as far as I can tell, no commercial successes in Africa in the mHealth and mEducation sub-sectors. However, programs like Dr. Math running on MxIt in South Africa and MOTECH currently in Ghana demonstrate the potential that lies untapped in the mobile platform as a channel. One of the ventures to watch is MedAfrica which is using Kenya’s Open Data in addition to other datasets provided by industry stakeholders to provide a commercial mHealth service.
  3. Financial intermediation - In this space lies the well known mobile-to-mobile money transfer services that emerged on the continent 5 years ago such as MPesa and Zap (now Airtel Money). Since then, the high and rapid penetration of mobile subscriptions and mobile money subscriptions in East Africa created new opportunities for financial services intermediation. Mobile-to-bank / bank-to-mobile services as well as mobile-to-web services that now make ecommerce via mobile money a reality have began to take hold. South Africa’s Fundamo has been present in the mobile money space since 2002 and was recently acquired by Visa International. Kenyan firm Cellulant, now serving institutions in at least 8 countries in sub-Sahara Africa is powering mobile banking services and content distribution via mobile phone for institutions such as Barclays Bank. Pesapal, launched in 2010 2009 as the first payment gateway that made ecommerce via mobile money a reality. It now also provides utility and bill payments via mobile money and debit/credit cards. Since its launch, other firms have emerged in that space including Bilmobile in Egypt, iPay in Kenya and many more. This continues to be a growth area across the region and one where new opportunities will continue to emerge.
  4. Business platforms - Small and medium sized businesses adopted mobile money fairly early. However, they failed to integrate mobile with business infrastructure. That is changing now with players like VirtualCity providing supply chain platforms that make sales and distribution management solutions via feature phones and smart phones possible. Their DistributR solution is now available as SaaS with the potential to scale rapidly across the region. ERP maker SAP has also recently announced the launch of it’s mobile solution that will provide businesses on their BusinessOne platform with mobile extension of their ERP services. In the past, achieving this level of enterprise mobility required huge investments in infrastructure and software. Now mobile-powered business solutions can be rolled out by small business within days of the decision to acquire. Enterprise mobility is probably the least exploited opportunity by local developers and one which international firms with the technology and understanding of the African market could seize for growth.
The continent with six of the ten fastest growing economies in the world is also home to the fastest growing and second largest mobile market on the planet. Signals like these hint at opportunities that lie every where in Africa. Those who have observed these signals and exploited them have reaped the benefits of ground floor access to opportunities others are expecting to present themselves in the future. Africa is not just the next frontier, Africa is here. It’s time we all saw Africa differently.

Muchiri is a Partner at Semacraft Consulting Partners

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