Africa banking on mobile to be first post-PC continent

Projects driving online penetration are focused more on mobile devices than on PCs

A convergence of historical circumstance and an increase in innovative mobile applications may make Africa the first post-PC continent.

Low investment in wired telecommunication infrastructure has driven increased mobile penetration, creating a user base that supports a rise in mobile innovation and increased interest in content development, according to observers.

Meanwhile, as global tech giants such as Intel, Nokia, Samsung, Google and Microsoft work on projects that aim to bring more people online, their focus is more on mobile devices and less on PC-based access to the Internet.

Poor telecoms infrastructure to homes and rural areas has meant that many people access PCs in their offices and use mobile handsets at home. Improved battery power has also allowed people to access resources that they would normally access on PC.

"Most African countries are haunted by poor network infrastructure, which makes fixed line communication extremely unreliable (in the few places where it's actually available); this gave rise to vast and rapid adoption of mobile handsets on the continent," said Pieter Kok, Research Manager for Software and IT Services at IDC South Africa.

IDC projects that the number of PC shipment to the region will rise, but not as quickly as smartphones and tablets, which are expected to experience steady growth. IDC estimates that in South Africa, 800,000 PCs were shipped in 2010 and the number is expected to decline by about four percent annually to reach 650,000 by 2015. Meanwhile, 1.3 million handsets were shipped in 2010 and that rate is expected to increase at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of nine percent to reach 2 million annually by 2015.

In the rest of Africa, prospects are brighter for PCs. IDC estimates that 3.7 million PCs were shipped in 2010 and annual shipments will rise to 6.9 million 2015 -- a 13 percent CAGR. Still, the number of smartphones shipped is expected to rise at a higher rate. In Nigeria, IDC projections show that 1.5 million smartphones and 17.2 million feature phones will be shipped in 2011. By 2015, both markets are expected to grow, reaching, respectively, 3.2 million and 21.3 million units shipped. For smartphones, that's a CAGR of 21.7 percent. Nigeria is Africa's largest mobile market, after recently overtaking South Africa.

Considering the lack of legacy infrastructure, more companies are now demanding innovation around mobile phones, because they are considered more accessible by consumers in the mass market. Businesses are now starting to take advantage of mobile growth, while the informal sector is also growing and providing services enabled by mobile technology.

"In a region where micro-entrepreneurship is a massive phenomenon, covering 90 percent of the employment base and 65 percent of the continental GDP, increased use of the mobile phone and services is fast becoming critical for development of African economies. Research indicates that in a typical sub-Saharan African country, a 10 percent increase in mobile penetration results to a corresponding 0.8 percent GDP growth," said Woon Peng, Nokia Head of Services in Middle East and Africa, speaking at the Innovation Africa Digital Summit in Mombasa two weeks ago.

Nokia is already working with developers in several African countries and Peng feels that Nokia's next big growth opportunity is to go beyond bringing affordable voice and SMS to delivering affordable web and applications.

"Rural populations live their lives largely outside of the reach of high quality services; through solutions like Nokia Data Gathering, we are already supporting field workers to collect, send and receive information quickly and securely via a mobile phone helping circumvent infrastructural challenges and speed up data collections needs in sectors such as health, agriculture, environmental conservation, population census and emergency services," added Peng, in a press release sent after her speech.

According to a study released last week by TNS RMS research, a higher percentage of residents in East Africa use mobile handsets than PCs to access the Internet, listen to music, play games, download content and engage with social networks.

"In Kenya, 64 percent of users listen to digital music via mobile phones while 24 percent access via PCs, 45 percent prefer to chat via mobile and 25 percent use PCs; in Uganda, 48 percent listen to music via mobile while 26 percent use PCs and 40 percent chat via mobile compared to 23 percent who prefer PC," said Melissa Baker, CEO of TNS RMS East Africa.

While the cost of mobile handsets has fallen over the years, the cost of tablets is still considered high, even though manufacturers such as Samsung are partnering with governments to provide educational content via tablets.

"The secondary school curriculum digitalization process is about 70 percent complete; Form 1 and 2 curricula and part of form 3, are already done and available to teachers on DVD for the 11 subjects taught," said Patricia King'ori, Samsung East Africa General Manager.

Teachers and students are expected to use Samsung tablets, which retail for $570 but are likely to be subsidized for the education sector. The project is part of Samsung's research and development efforts.

While tablets are considered attractive because of the bigger screen and high battery capability, they are still considered too expensive for most users.

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