By Chief K.Masimba Biriwasha
Harare, Zimbabwe – The queue of people waiting to have their mobile internet activated snakes out of the mobile phone shop owned by Econet, Zimbabwe’s leading mobile operator until the customer consultant directs new arrivals to another branch.
According to the customer consultant, Chido Masunda, over 1,000 people are coming to the shop on a daily basis to get their mobile internet activated on their mobile phones.
“From the time we open the shop in the morning until we close we have so many people that come into the shop. There is definitely a lot of interest in mobile internet,” she said, adding that she is forced to turn away some people.
Many of the customers interested in mobile net are young, technologically savvy urbanites; the service is largely unheard of in the country’s rural areas where 70 percent of the population resides.
“I want to use my mobile internet to check out my Facebook, my email, download music as well as read newspapers,” said Nobukhosi Ndlovu, who activated her mobile net a month ago.
According to Masunda, subscribers can buy internet bundles ranging from 1 to 1000 megabytes to allow them to connect to the internet. Each megabyte costs 50 US cents. At such a cost, many people will struggle to afford the luxury of sending and receiving large files. But early signs are promising.
Since Econet launched its mobile broadband package in the last quarter of 2010, the uptake has been exponential. Latest statistics show that 1.8 million people, that’s more than 30% of the mobile operator’s 5,500,000 subscribers now have mobile internet, and the number is growing on a daily basis.
In fact, Zimbabwe’s mobile phone industry has been projected to reach 13,5 million subscribers in 2015 and worth a phenomenal US 1,34 billion by 2016, according to IE Market Research (IEMR) and the growth partnership company Frost & Sullivan (F&S), respectively. Projections are that Zimbabwe will have universal mobile connection by 2014, and with demand for voice services increasingly met, future growth is predicted to occur around mobile internet and broadband provision.
“With demand for voice services increasingly met, future growth is predicted to occur around mobile internet and broadband provision. Both mobile operators and internet access providers will benefit from this second wave of growth,” reads the Frost & Sullivan report.
Unlike a decade ago, today it is very easy to secure a mobile phone and a sim card – prices have drastically gone down. More lower-income Zimbabweans, in both rural and urban areas, are now using the mobile unlike in the past when it was a preserve of the elite. The arrival of cheap, Chinese-made mobile has also increased mobile usage in the country.
Unfortunately, there has been little to no innovation in the local mobile sector in terms of value added services which could be attributed to the lack of meaningful investment in the technology sector over the past decade due to the country’s political fallout. Voice and SMS-text messaging remain by far the most popular uses of the mobile phone.
There has been very little development in mobile banking, farming, health care provision, environment protection or improving human rights among others. With exception, though, Kubatana.net, a grassroots organisation have been pioneering the use of mobile technology in civil society work. According to Kubatana, the project titled, “Freedom Fone” leverages the fastest growing tool for personal access to information 24/7 – the mobile phone – & marries it with citizen radio programming. Freedom Fone makes it easy to build interactive, two way, phone based information services using interactive audio voice menus, voice messages, SMS and polls.
“Audio files are stored by Freedom Fone in a Content Management System (CMS) which is updated through a simple to use browser interface. These audio clips populate an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) menu through which callers can navigate for information. Deployment in any language is possible as key global files for menu prompts can be uploaded through the browser interface to the CMS,” states Kubatana on its website.
“Individuals can contribute questions, content and feedback by leaving voice messages via the IVR interface. Freedom Fone can be operated as a collective, with different groups managing different channels (IVR menu options) of information from the same installation.”
Apart from this, the main benefit has been increased access to cheaper voice services and mobile internet. In addition, the overall growth in mobile has significantly contributed revenue to the telecommunications sector. Currently, the mobile penetration rate is 54 percent. According to statistics, Zimbabwean mobile communications market earned a total of $372,2-million in 2009.
“Mobile operators are the largest contributors to telecommunications revenues in Zimbabwe,” said Frost & Sullivan ICT Industry Analyst, Protea Hirschel. “As 3G networks expand, mobile operators compete more directly with Internet access providers. These, in turn, have entered the voice market, adding to competition.”
Despite the fact that mobile operators are raking in a lot of profit, network quality of mobile networks in Zimbabwe is generally considered to be poor by subscribers. To make matters worse, erratic power supply remains a significant challenge for all telecommunications operators.
Nonetheless, F & S reports that the mobile market in the country will experience a compound annual growth rate of 20,1%, considerably lower than the 40,6% revenue growth experienced from 2008 to 2009. The company’s forecast report released in May 2011 titled “An Overview of Zimbabwe’s Vibrant Telecommunications Market” says that subscriber numbers in Zimbabwe trebled from early 2009 to mid-2010, whereas fixed-line subscriptions remained stagnant. Mobile subscriber numbers jumped from less than two million at the end of 2008 to 6.9-million in mid-2010.
According to IEMR’s five-year Mobile Operator Forecast on Zimbabwe issued in April, Zimbabwe’s largest mobile operator, Econet Wireless is expected to take 70 percent of the market share.
“I think the company that will emerge the winner is the one pouring money into infrastructure right now, Econet Wireless. New entrants will obviously have a hard time penetrating as they will face some resistance from the incumbents,” said Limbikani Soul Makani, founder of TechZim, a blogging platform on technology in Zimbabwe. “Interconnection, for example, hasn’t been a walk in the park for Internet Access Providers wanting to introduce voice services. Small entrants are therefore facing delays while the incumbents grow their networks even bigger.”
The country’s decade-long political and economic fallout coupled with international isolation clearly resulted in little to no investment in the technological sector. The Global Information Technology Report 2007-08 ranked Zimbabwe in 125th position on the Networked Readiness Index (NRI), out of 127 countries surveyed by the World Economic Forum.
With the political system still in somewhat of a limbo, there are fears that the projected growth in the mobile telephone sector will be inhibited.
The impact of politics on mobile telephony in Zimbabwe is without a doubt. Take for example, the country’s mobile penetration rate rose from 9 to 56 percent since the inception of the inclusive government in September 2008.
When incumbent President Robert Mugabe signed a power sharing agreement with arch-rival Morgan Tsvangirai, and Arthur Mutambara two years ago, hyperinflation was estimated at 6,5 quindecillion novemdecillion percent, or 6,5 followed by 107 zeros. Violent elections in which President Mugabe was declared the winner result in Zimbabwe being ostracized at international level, stemming the transfer of technology into the country among other things.
According to Information, Communications and Technology Minister, Nelson Chamisa the country is making strides in the technology sector and is looking at actively taking information technology to rural communities. Further, ICT products can now be imported into the country free of duty.
Recently the Government of Zimbabwe (GoZ) completed the installations of the optic fibre cable that now links the state owned fixed operator to the East African Submarine System (EASSy) undersea cable through Mozambique. This is expected to significantly increase Internet and other communication connectivity speeds. The fibre, covering a distance of about 280km, is the first phase of the planned national backbone rollout.
A combination of growth in mobile telephony, installation of the fibre optic projects and increased use of data services are likely to result in a boom in the technology sector.
Mobile telephony is likely to stimulate a host to innovations in the country. In effect, experts say that an increase of 10 mobile phones per 100 people typically boosts gross domestic product (GDP) by 0,6 percent per annum in developing nations.
There is no doubt that technology will play a vital role in Zimbabwe’s political, social and economic recovery, and the mobile phone will feature prominently in that trajectory.