Game of Phones: Five mobile adoption trends in Africa

With Africa’s young population, a well-earned reputation for innovative mobile solutions that address real-world problems and a healthy appetite for these and other services, the mobile economy on the continent is booming.

Research indicates that the mobile industry contributes $132-billion to sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP — and that the economic value added to the continent’s GDP by mobile technologies and services will be worth $155-billion by 2025. Transactions on mobile money platforms are worth even more, reaching $490-billion in 2020. 

These volumes are matched by a growing number of subscribers. By the end of 2020, 46% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population — 495 million people — subscribed to mobile services. It is estimated that 615 million people in sub-Saharan Africa will subscribe to mobile services by 2025, equivalent to 50% of the region’s population.

And with more than 40% of the region’s population under the age of 15, young consumers owning a cell phone for the first time will remain the primary source of growth for the foreseeable future.

The opportunities are enormous. This makes it critical to look at emerging mobile trends to best unlock and harness these opportunities. 

The top trends that we are:

Device choice is driven by the need to be in contact and contactable, as well as the job the device needs to perform. This is true whether individuals are buying a smartphone or feature phone and regardless of their preferred way of communicating, whether it be voice, SMS, over-the-top (OTT) messaging such as WhatsApp or social media platforms. The job that the individual needs the device to perform will determine what they prioritise, ranging from battery life, speed, performance and ease of use to camera quality and even the brand itself. There is also always their budget to consider. 

There are so many contributing elements to device choice, but we have consistently found that the common denominator is the need to love and trust their device, which invariably means they will keep it for longer. A 2020 survey found that 33% of people keep their phone for at least three years. 

Value for money continues to be the most important deciding factor for African consumers. The debate of price versus value always comes up, and inevitably reverts to the individual and where they see the value according to their needs and preferences. The fact remains that consumers across the continent continue to look for value-for money smartphones and feature phones that offer a quality experience. 

Over the past few years, screen size and battery capacity have been hugely important for smartphones, and durability and standby time have been critical for feature phones. Feature phones are also gaining in popularity, with a global trend report showing that 69% of people think smartphones have become too expensive and 81% want phones that they can trust and that can stand the test of time.

Price and product availability have taken a knock as markets in Africa are still recovering from interruptions to global supply chains caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. There have been definite changes to the market landscape, especially in the way products now get to market. There has been a rise in sea transport because of a shortage of passenger and cargo flights. There have also been major changes in component and chipset availability, which has affected both product availability and price.

Despite these disruptions, there is steady device sales growth in African markets and an increase in multi-phone ownership. As a case in point, we are seeing growth for Nokia devices in all our markets in Africa – and, equally, a notable increase in people owning more than one phone. There is a growing move towards people who have a smartphone and a secondary, companion feature phone. The SIM card being used in the feature phone is often classified as “this is the number you can always reach me on”. Considering standby time and talk time, this is often the preferred means of communication for users who rely heavily on voice calls as a primary means of communication. As a result, there is an increase in demand for feature phones that support 4G and, more specifically, that can support VoLTE calls.

Even as the demand for 4G-supported feature phones grows, the continued rise of 5G will enable other trends such as remote work. As 5G coverage and the cost of the related hardware improves, this will bring new services that take advantage of these increased speed and low latency capabilities. This will support the ability to work remotely and will challenge previously well-established corporate structures, which will continue to affect and change the face of traditional workplaces and ways of working. Rapid change and advancements will remain the defining feature of the world as we know it.

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Patrick Henchie
Patrick Henchie
Patrick Henchie is head of product and operations at HMD Global

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