By Emeka Aginam, in Cape Town, South Africa
Although mobile connectivity is playing a key role in enabling the inclusion of underserved in the socio-economic development of many African countries, the journey to achieving full digital, social and financial inclusion in the region may be still far as a result of many challenges.
But with the current effort of GSMA, governments, mobile operators and international development organization, there are positive signals that these challenges would be addressed.
The GSMA represents interest of mobile operators and related companies around the world. The group is devoted to supporting the standardizing, deployment and promotion of the GSM mobile telephone system
Just last week at the just concluded GSMA Mobile 360 Series African conference, GSMA had reported in its latest sturdy that mobile industry in the region has contributed over $100 billion to the region’s economy in 2014.
The figure is an indication that the African region is heading towards the right direction, especially with the current mobile for development strategic focus of the GSMA and its partners.
Through keynotes, panel sessions, and case studies, the event with the theme, ‘Accelerating Social and Economic Empowerment’ explored the power of mobile to drive digital, financial and social inclusion with sessions such as, ‘The power to connect: Providing access for all’, ‘The power to browse, save and spend: Building the mobile financial ecosystem, and ‘The power to innovate: Growing start-ups ecosystem and cultivation entrepreneurship, among others.
For the majority of speakers at the event, unless issues around network , infrastructure, government policy , taxation, locally relevant content, cost of devices, among others were resolved urgently, digital inclusion may be slowed.
Earlier in his welcome address, Alex Sinclair, Acting Director General and Chief Executive Officer, GSMA told the gathering that Africa has the capacity to achieve digital, financial and social inclusion if all stakeholders including government worked together.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the GSMA, Jon Fredrik Baksass, while unfolding the direction of the GSMA for the developing markets before international audience during the event said that the group would focus its efforts on three key enablers including connectivity, mobile money and identity for the unregistered.
“The mobile industry remains a key driver of economic growth and employment in Sub-Saharan Africa, making a vital contribution given the population growth and high unemployment levels seen in many countries in the region,” Alex Sinclair, Acting Director General and Chief Technology Officer at the GSMA, said.
A key element of the new strategy, according to M. Yasmina Mccarty, Head of Mobile for Development in an interview with Vanguard was to bring together mobile operator members, the wider mobile industry and the development community to drive commercial mobile services for underserved people in emerging markets.
Connectivity has been a major hurdle for digital inclusion in majority of the African countries. Working on this, she said that GSMA Mobile for Development support emerging market operators address barriers to network coverage, affordability, locally relevant content and digital skills to help link the next two billion to the mobile internet.
With optimism, she said that this is possible with political will of African governments and the operators in the region.
With the porous security situation in most African countries, she assured that the umbrella body for mobile operators will work with operators, governments and humanitarian organizations to leverage mobile to identify citizens without identity.
In doing so, she said that issues around identity theft, advanced fee fraud, cyber-crime would be solved to the barest minimum.
The Mobile Money programme works with mobile operators and the financial industry to accelerate the availability of affordable financial services that provide safety, security and convenience to the unbanked.
While accelerating women’s digital and financial inclusion, she was still access gap among women and men in developing nations.
Key findings of the Connected Women 2015 project according to her are that over 1.7 million females in low and middle income countries do not own mobile phones.
Even when women own mobile phones, she said based on the report, there was a significant gender gap in mobile phone usage preventing them from reaping the full benefits mobile phone ownership.
Push for $20 3G enabled smartphone
To achieve more mobile connectivity in the sub-Saharan Africa, two giant service providers, MTN and Etisalat have said that cost of 3G enabled smart phones was still a key barrier to connectivity.
Speaking during a keynote session on ‘The power to connect: Providing Access for during the event, the Executive Director, Group President and Chief Executive Officer of the MTN Group, Sifisco Dabengwa told the gathering that there was need to still bring down the retail price of cheapest devices from fifty dollars to twenty dollars to achieve connectivity.
According to him, there are many 3G enabled devices in the market but noted that affordability was still a challenge to many people in the region.
To further address the connectivity challenge, the MTN boss added that there was need for clear regulatory framework.
Also speaking, the Deputy Chairman, GSMA, Group Chief Executive Officer, Etisalat Group, Ahmed Abdulkarim Julfar also said that cost of smart phones must be reduced for digital inclusion.
“There is need for the vendors to bring down cost of 3G enabled devices in the region. Device price is a challenge in the region. There is also need for infrastructure sharing, government support and alternative technologies in the region to drive connectivity” he said.
For Chidi Okpala, Director and Head, Airtel Money – Africa, regulatory framework was limiting mobile money take off in Nigeria. According to him, mobile operators should be allowed to play leading role in mobile money business in Nigeria just like some countries in Africa.