Africa does not necessarily need internet to provide digital services to its citizenry

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I suggest that Africa does not necessarily need internet to provide digital access to its citizenry, it only needs mobile access.

Here is the setup for my theory.

There is wider coverage internet penetration across the continent , as  of 2018 above 50% of the mobile broadband penetration across the continent is 3G, South Africa has 70% broadband penetration with telecom players like Vodacom planning 5G trials  of but the whole SADC (Southern African Development Community)  region has 4%  4G penetration

According the GSMA (An organization that represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, uniting more than 750 operators with almost 400 companies in the broader mobile ecosystem, including handset and device makers, software companies, equipment providers and internet companies, as well as organizations in adjacent industry sectors.) There are now more than 3.8 billion mobile internet subscribers globally, representing 49% of the world’s population. However, adoption has not been equitable, with mobile internet adoption standing at 26% in Sub-Saharan Africa at the end of 2019.

The region accounts for almost half of the global population not covered by a mobile broadband network.

So we have a long round to fixing the internet divide …


Why do I say , it more important right now to have cell phone coverage to push the digitalization agenda as opposed to internet penetration  as we wait for the factors that will enable wide spread internet penetration coverage .

In order to have an appreciable increase in internet coverage, one or more of these factors would have to be true :

  • It will have to be commercially viable for telecom companies to blanket whole African countries even in areas where usage is not that high or we find cheaper ways of offering internet.
  • African governments mandate rural telecom coverage like they did electrification on the African countries
  • The price of smart phone can consistently falls under the 25USD , phones are the devices people are most likely to use to access the internet and with the average prices of 70 USD it is not affordable for large parts of the African population
  • The cost of internet falls across the continent, The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) is a global coalition working to drive down the cost of internet access in low- and middle-income countries defines affordability as 1GB of mobile broadband data costing no more than 2% of average monthly income. The average in African 7.12%. According to world bank Malawians, pay  around 87% of gross national income per capita for 1GB of mobile data.


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Whilst we wait for the convergence of the right set of factors, my theory is, we can bridge the digital divide and increase the use offer digital services across the African continent solely relying on SMS and USSD .

Let me Explain …

In 2006 when twitter started , the iPhone had not yet been commercialized ( this would happen in 2007) and black berry was king  but not everyone had one , twitter enabled sms tweeting . This feature enabled people with non smart phones to participate in the twitter online experience by using sms to tweet and receiving tweets via sms .

In the USA to tweet , you would need to activate the service and send sms to short code 40404. In 2020 twitter has disabled the functionality across the globe but it shows a powerful example how we don’t necessarily need the internet participate in the online experience.

Just like twitter took the online twitter experience and made it accessible we can begin to deconstruct complex online services and offer to them to people who have not yet bridged the digital divide through USSD and SMS .

This is the same vein in which African banking to the banking via mobile money using USSD  to enable to the unbanked to save, pay for and borrow with simple phones .

USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) is a Global System for Mobile(GSM) communication technology that is used to send text between a mobile phone and an application program in the network. Applications may include prepaid roaming or mobile chatting. It is activated when a user dials *, the intended number and ends with a # (hash).

USSD’s major advantage is most mobile subscribers already use it to top up their prepaid call credit so are more comfortable with it than an App and additionally it doesn’t’ rely on a data connection to operate enabling it have a wider reach and do more complex task that SMS cannot do.


African did not need the internet to provide financial technology to the underserved and it does not need it to provide government services and essential digital services to its populations.


This is happening right  in Government services across the continent:

M-Akiba was launched in the 2017 by the Kenyan government for micro investment in government securities via USSD,The aim was to attract and improve investment lifestyle in Kenyans . The government aims to borrow (approximately US$50 million through the M-Akiba bond to fund infrastructural development projects. The idea was the an interest rate of 10% per annum for every six  months.

I don’t know however if this project still exists..



This is already happening in Agriculture:

Table 9.1

Examples of m-services offered to Kenyan farmers (as of June 2013)


Daily crop price information, selling of produce, purchasing of inputs (on hold), start date: October 2010

Kenya Agricultural Commodity Exchange

Weekly crop price information, Soko Hewani to sell produce through radio auctions, start date: 1997 (company)


Agricultural information (e.g., climate changes, product prices, services for farmers, agricultural methods), selling of produce, start date: October 2010

National Farmers’ Information Service (NAFIS)

Agricultural infor mation (e.g., crops, livestock, market prices on inputs and outputs, other info), start date: April 2008


Agricultural information (e.g., soils, fertiliser application, agronomy, markets or pesticide use), start date: 2012

Maize Variety SMS Service

Information on the most suitable maize variety to grow in the division


Livestock production information (e.g., info about local services, record keeping, best practice, cow calendar) and virtual livestock market, start date: June 2011

FrontlnieSMS Radio

e.g. The Organic Farmer, Pur Mariek (farm wisely) on Radio Nam Lolwe, agricultural information on the radio in response to farmers’ questions

FarmerVoice Radio

Agricultural information, start date: July 2009

aOkoth (2013)


Happening in Health :

I was involved with a project years ago , called Mobile tecch for health , Motech which uses a combination of SMS and voice prompts to provide prenatal; information to expectant mothers whilst enforcing hospital attendance adherence.


The WelTel Kenya study was designed to promote antiretroviral (ARV) medication adherence using a simpler and much less resource intensive system of weekly SMS text messages inquiring about patients’ general wellbeing . Patients are expected to respond within 48 hours. If a patient reports symptoms of poor health or does not respond, then healthcare providers follow up by phone


We gave already done this with banking, agriculture and health why can’t we create policies that enables web based essential services to include options which enables the underserved to be able to participate in online services and communities?

Inclusivity also means we bridge the digital divide by allowing participation in the online experience without the need for the internet remember we did not need to internet to provide financial services to the unbanked , we used mobile .