John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Guest Post: Defining Mobile Phone Usage in Africa

by John Campbell
February 15, 2012

Nokia mobile phone chargers are seen at Abubakr Ali's (C) market stall in Abu Shouk Camp, Darfur, February 11, 2010. (Andrew Heavens/Courtesy Reuters) Nokia mobile phone chargers are seen at Abubakr Ali's (C) market stall in Abu Shouk Camp, Darfur, February 11, 2010. (Andrew Heavens/Courtesy Reuters)

This is a guest post by Asch Harwood, CFR Africa program research associate. Follow him on Twitter at @aschlfod.

A comment was recently made to me citing the huge number of mobile phones in Nigeria—over 90 million—as an indicator of that country’s budding middle class. However, in this conversation, my interlocutor failed to make the distinction between mobile phones and mobile phones subscriptions, which turns out to be important.

In most of Africa, prepaid SIM cards dominate and, almost always, mobile phone statistics refer to subscriptions. A person can have a mobile phone subscription without having a mobile phone; or multiple mobile phones and multiple subscriptions; or a subscription without any minutes. Bottom line: mobile phone statistics can be misleading. We don’t know how many actual handsets are out there. Nor do we know how many subscriptions are not being used or how many are being shared.

Jeffrey James and Mila Versteeg, in a 2007 paper (pdf), “Mobile Phones in Africa: How Much Do We Really Know?”, go a step further to show how much we don’t know. They make the argument that we must differentiate between “mobile phone subscribers, mobile phone owners, mobile phone users, those who benefit from usage and those who have access to this technology.” These differences have implications for mobile phone impact, and whether we can equate mobile phone subscriptions with a middle class.

They conclude that “it is on usage (rather than ownership) that data collection needs to focus, because this concept comes closest to capturing the benefits that are actually derived from mobile phones.” As they point out, it is also the most difficult.

What we do know is that the number of mobile phones in sub-Saharan Africa has exploded, and will most certainly impact development.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by John Ojeah

    Yes, people do have multiple phones in Africa, but the reason is because it is difficult for one operator to cover the whole country (talking about Nigeria).

    What about the revenue or profit made by mobile phone operators? Bharti Airtel’s Nigeria operation accounts for almost 10 percent of its profit. MTN makes huge revenue in Nigeria, same with Etisalat. I believe the same happens in other parts of Africa. Figures don’t lie, Ash. I believe the huge revenue is the best proof of usage otherwise operators would have closed shop and leave Africa in droves.

  • Posted by Judy Asuni

    In Nigeria I have 3 mobile phones with subscriptions (and credit on them!). But then so does my driver, so it’s hardly a sign of the middle class. In our work in Bayelsa State we have found that certain riverine areas have e.g. Airtel network while the next area has only Glo network. Our website administrator has 4 different modems so he can be online as he traverses the state. Some months ago I could not find a single working fax in Nigeria.We all rely on mobile phones and internet to keep in touch with each other and with the world.

  • Posted by Maduka

    As a Nigerian, living in Nigeria, let me make a few observations.

    1. The Middle Class in Nigeria today is most definitely larger (in proportion to the entire population) than it was in the nineties.

    2. Mobile phone subscription may not be good indicator of the size of the Middle Class, but 90 million subscribers indicates that there could be (and there actually is) an industry built around the sales of prepaid cards. That a lot of money is being made by that industry and that a significant number of people are being employed.

    3. It also indicates certain productivity gains are being made. Farmers can access their buyers more easily, hair-dressers can access their clients more easily etc.

    4. All said, the Middle Class would be a lot smaller if the Mobile Telecommunications revolution had not occurred.

  • Posted by John P. Causey, IV

    Great post (and picture!). When I first arrived in Cameroon in 2002 I had arrived just shortly after the first mobile phones had been introduced. In addition, the first internet connection arrived in the country the same year.

    Fast-forward 7 years, and my return trip to W. Africa was astounding in several ways, not the least of which was the penetration that cellphones and the internet had made in such a short time. Happily, I noticed in the people of the countries a higher understanding of world affairs. More importantly, they followed their own country’s affairs/problems with a noticeably more sophisticated and thoughtful approach. I attributed, and still do attribute, those changes to the advent of the internet and cell phone usage in the W. African countries.

    I am in agreement with the tone of the post that the manner in which usage statistics is gathered is suspect. For instance, in my house I have 5 SIM cards, and I am only a modest air time user. Clearly, counting me 5 times is not edifying.

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