By Chief K. Masimba Biriwasha
Harare, Zimbabwe – A drop in the price of mobile handsets and the arrival of the fiber optic network in Zimbabwe has caused an enormous expansion in the use of mobile phones.
With the launch of mobile broadband services, Zimbabwe is undergoing dramatic changes in how people communicate and do business.
The rapid adoption of technology is redefining the way people here communicate, especially the young and technologically savvy.
A combination of factors, including growth in mobile telephone use and the installation of a fiber-optic network, is shaping a new way of engagement and connectedness. Mobile phones are providing Zimbabwe with an opportunity to leapfrog development stages in the country, and many Zimbabweans’ first experience of the internet will be through the mobile phone.
To illustrate the trend, the number of mobile phone subscribers in Zimbabwe tripled from less than 2 million at the end of 2008 to reach 6.9 million in 2010, according to growth partnership company Frost & Sullivan. Currently, the mobile penetration rate is 54 percent. Despite the country’s massive unemployment rates and low incomes, analysts expect the growth in mobile technology to continue, reaching more than 13 million subscribers by 2015.
Unlike a decade ago, today it is very easy to secure a mobile phone and a SIM-card –– prices have fallen drastically. Mobile phones used to be a preserve of the rich elite, but now more low-income Zimbabweans, in both rural and urban areas, have access to them. The arrival of cheap, Chinese-made products, such as G-Tide, have taken Zimbabwe by storm as mobile users snap them up for half the price of leading brands like Nokia and Samsung.
Mobile driving economic growth
The overall growth in mobile technology has substantially contributed revenue to Zimbabwe’s telecommunications sector; the mobile communications market earned a total of $372.2 million in 2009, according to Frost & Sullivan. Mobile operators have traditionally targeted urban areas, but as urban markets become saturated, the next generation of mobile phone users will increasingly be rural.
“Mobile operators are the largest contributors to telecommunications revenues in Zimbabwe,” said Protea Hirschel, a Frost & Sullivan ICT industry analyst, in a statement.
Using mobile technology for development?
While there’s growth in the technological infrastructure and use of mobile phones, innovation in the area of value-added services for mobile phones is still scarce. Unlike in other parts of the continent, there has been very little progress in using mobile technology to enhance banking, farming, health care provision, or environmental protection among other possible uses.
One notable exception, though, comes from Kubatana.net, a grassroots organization, which has been pioneering the use of mobile technology for citizen journalism through its “Freedom Fone” project.
“Freedom Fone enables organizations and individuals to share audio content via the mobile phone,” said Amanda Atwood, an official with Kubatana. “It expands the ability to reach citizens using the mobile beyond the SMS. If you consider the frequency of mobile usage in Zimbabwe and its ability to keep people connected, it’s definitely a tool with great potential.”
If other developing countries are any guide, Zimbabwe will eventually benefit from more innovation in the application of mobile technology to improve social welfare. Jussi Hinkkanen, Nokia’s head of government relations for Africa, said that the first part of the mobile revolution was about communication while the next is about value-added services. For now, however, the major contribution mobile technology is making in is in redefining traditional ways of communication.
The rise of the mobile internet
Access to new mobile technologies and social networking is changing the way that young urbanites read newspapers, do business, find love and communicate. The penetration of the mobile phone is still far greater than that of the internet in Zimbabwe, especially in rural areas, making it the most accessible communication tool.
Mobile broadband is in its nascent stages here but judging from the rapid uptake it may be Zimbabwe’s most promising broadband access technology of the future. The mobile Web has great potential because it is interactive, participatory, and to some degree democratic and anonymous. While only a small percent of Zimbabweans are using mobile phones to access the internet, this is likely to change.
Since Econet Wireless, Zimbabwe’s largest mobile operator, launched its mobile broadband package in the last quarter of 2010, there has been a sizeable increase in use. Latest statistics show that 1.8 million people, more than 30 percent of the mobile operator’s 5,500,000 subscribers, now have mobile internet, and the number is growing on a daily basis. A customer consultant at one of Econet Wireless’s mobile shops in Harare said that more than 1,000 people are coming to the shop daily to get 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.
The mobile phone has already become part of Zimbabwean culture. Social uses such as keeping in touch with family and friends feature strongly. A tech-savvy government employee, Paradzai Dasi, said he uses his mobile to text, chat with friends on social networks, visits different sites on the web, conduct business as well read newspapers. Zimbabwe’s Diaspora has also been a key factor in the upsurge of the use of social networks.
“Social networking, especially using Facebook, has also allowed me to stay in touch with my friends and relatives that are in the Diaspora. We get to communicate at the click of a button. It’s as easy as that, and I can have a proper conversation which is cheap,” said Dasi.
Extending benefits beyond wealthy, urban areas
Most of the Zimbabweans interested in mobile net are young, technologically savvy urbanites; the service is still largely unheard of in the rural areas where approximately 70 percent of the population resides. While penetration of mobile phones is quite high in rural areas, the mobile net is still unavailable. But the rural situation is expected to change in the near future as the country upgrades its technology and connects to fiber optic cables.
According to Tonderai Mpala, an independent economist in Harare, the completion of the fiber-optic line would increase the country’s gross domestic (GDP) by an average 1.4 percent. He said the new cable should substantially reduce the time it takes to seek out information online, the cost of making calls abroad, and the technical obstacles which small-scale businesses have faced in launching data-heavy websites.
“The resulting drop in communication and internet connectivity costs will be a relief to many and will effectively make mobile and internet communication available to more low-income Zimbabweans who have so far been left out of such developments,” said Tapera Kurebwa, an ICT expert.
As for the future, the development of mobile phone applications for profitable and non-profit ventures, including mobile applications that utilize the Web, is still required. Currently, much of the demand on mobile is driven by voice as opposed to data. A key challenge remains to develop content and mobile applications that are locally relevant.
Overall, mobile technology is likely to stimulate a host of innovations and there is no doubt that it will play a vital role in country’s economic recovery and future development.