Development Discourse: Mobile technology key to Africa’s economic revival


The Global System for Mobile Association (GSMA), which represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide has disclosed that mobile technology will play a key role as governments attempt to revive their economies and build better, more inclusive societies.

The report notes that continued network evolution and expansion will be essential to stimulating economic growth, mobilizing the workforce and enabling new levels of industrial efficiency across various parts of the economy.

In its 2021 report GSMA underscores the significance for governments to reassess the business and regulatory environment for mobile services to accelerate investment and innovation in the sector.  Key among the policy directives should be affordability and inclusiveness.

Ghana showing leadership

So far, the Government of Ghana has shown leadership and commitment in investing in digital technology and upgrading many sectors to the digital payment platforms. Led by the Vice President, Dr. Mahamudu Bawumia the Government is investing in the development of a robust framework to support the digitization of the economy to benefit every citizen and reduce corruption in the public sector.

In pursuance of the Digital Agenda, a number of initiatives such as the biometric National Identity Card, the National Digital Property Addressing System, the introduction of paperless port operations, the integrated e-immigration system, e-procurement, e-parliament, e-justice, e-cabinet and smart workplaces among other initiatives have been launched in the last few years. Together with the development of an interoperability system to integrate government databases, these initiatives represent significant milestones in Ghana’s digitization revolution.

Cost of internet

The snag, though, in digital transformation, is the cost of mobile phones and internet data and its tendency to widen the digital gap. The fear is that if the cost of internet is exorbitant, it is impossible for poor people to benefit from and participate in digital economy. Because of its potential for both economic and human development, some analysts argue that internet access should not just be aspirational, but should become a human right.

Sadly, affordable internet and internet-enabled handsets remain a challenge to digital penetration in Africa, though Africa has the biggest potential globally to utilize internet as a tool for development. The GSMA notes that, in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the median cost of an entry-level internet-enabled handset represented more than 120 percent of monthly income for the poorest 20 percent of the population in 2019. The combination of unemployment and low wages may continue to scuttle Africa’s drive towards digital inclusion.

Contribution to GDP

In 2020, mobile technologies and services generated 5.1% of global GDP, a contribution that amounted to almost $4.4 trillion of economic value added. The mobile industry also supported approximately 25 million jobs (directly and indirectly) and made a substantial contribution to the funding of the public

sector, with more than $410 billion raised through taxes on the sector.

By 2025, mobile’s contribution will grow by $480 billion (approaching $5 trillion) as countries around the world increasingly benefit from the improvements in productivity and efficiency brought about by the increased take-up of mobile services.

Additional indirect and productivity benefits could bring the total contribution of the mobile industry to almost $4.4 trillion billion, percentage of GDP (2020). The mobile industry directly employed around 12 million people in 2020, plus another 13 million indirectly through adjacent industries Jobs. In 2020, the mobile ecosystem contributed more than $410 billion to the funding of the public sector through consumer and operator taxes.

Smart phone industry

Another interesting development is that Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia Pacific will account for nearly half a billion new subscribers by 2025.  During the period, there will be an additional 1.6 billion smartphone connections by 2025, bringing the overall adoption level to over 80% of total mobile connections.

Prior to the pandemic, the average handset replacement cycle was 2.25 years. However, with consumers facing tough economic prospects, the replacement cycle could extend to 3 years or more, potentially reducing overall sales in the short-to-medium term. Interestingly, lower consumer spending in developed markets could compound limited subscriber growth and price competition, while developing markets could see sustained growth from mobile data uptake and a surge in new subscribers, given the reliance on mobile networks for internet access.

Quite positively, by the end of 2020, 5.2 billion people globally subscribed to mobile services, representing 67% of the global population. If the current trend continues, there will be nearly half a billion new subscribers by 2025, taking the total number of subscribers to 5.7 billion (70% of the global population). Interestingly, huge markets in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa will account for most new subscribers.

Availability of spectrum

Further, the availability of broadband spectrum, such as the 5G technology at competitive rates is critical to the attainment of high-performance networks and services. With connectivity set to play a prominent role in a post-pandemic world, mobile telephone operators will have to increase investment in advanced networks, particularly 5G, and digital services necessary to spur future economic growth. More than ever, COVID 19 has made internet spectrum a critical resource for national productivity and development.  As a result, governments and regulators should assign 5G spectrum to support their digital connectivity goals, rather than as a source of state revenues. This is because effective and equitable spectrum pricing policies are vital to support better quality and more affordable 5G services for all.

Lifeline during the pandemic

The GSMA report revealed that many people around the world depended on the internet to access life-enhancing services during lockdowns. The shift to online activities – including learning, work, shopping, entertainment and social interactions – is evidenced by the sharp growth in data traffic at the peak of the pandemic. Specifically, mobile network traffic grew 50% on average in the 12 months to September 2020. Again, Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for most of the growth, where mobile is the primary and, in many cases only, form of internet access. This is an interesting development, because Sub-Sahara Africa always ranked lowest in poverty and other underdeveloped statistics.

Risk of exclusion

The report further notes that the reliance on connectivity and digital services for many daily activities might drive post pandemic economic recovery, with some changes in consumer behaviours and business processes set to become permanent. However, there are fears of the risk of exclusion from online services for people still unable to access digital services; though some progress has been made to connect unconnected people online. In 2020, 225 million people connected to the mobile internet for the first time, bringing the total to just over 4 billion people (51% of the global population).

Despite a meaningful attempt to bridge the digital gap in recent years, the pace of growth in mobile internet adoption has been relatively slower in poor countries. At the end of 2020, 41% of the global population (equivalent to around 3.2 billion people) lived closer to a mobile broadband network but did not use mobile internet services. GSMA identified five main barriers to usage and how these barriers can be overcome, such as increasing access, improving affordability, enhancing digital skills and literacy, safety and security (tackling harassment, theft and fraud) and availability of relevant content, products and services.

As digital technologies are beginning to shape the way people live and how businesses operate, the urgency to bring more people online is becoming ever pressing. On a more positive note, the awareness of mobile internet is improving, among rural populations and women, but is still far from universal. Africa is reported as making impressive gains on mobile phone awareness and adoption, especially among women and small-scale farmers. Currently, many Ghanaians are doing business using various online platforms. For this reason, government policy needs to facilitate the expansion of the technology to every part of the country to promote economic inclusion.

Personal data/Data protection law

One area the mobile technology has improved human development is the use of mobile money services.   In the height of the pandemic mobile money became more accessible in poorer countries than in richer countries.  As a result, in many developing countries, including Ghana, mobile money services have become integral to the national Covid-19 response and provides a critical path to delivering financial assistance quickly, safely and efficiently.

However, the increasing adoption of mobile technology and internet services has underscored the importance of protecting the personal data of mobile users. For example, data privacy was a major consideration in the development of contact-tracing applications for Covid-19 across the world, including Ghana. This makes it mandatory for mobile phone and internet service providers to introduce measures to prevent cybercrime and abuse.

Perhaps, the renewed focus on data privacy and responsible data governance is an opportunity to enact relevant laws, which can help countries take advantage of the huge opportunity that digital transformation offers while also strengthening trust in technology. These should be guided by principles that:

  • Protect personal data while offering flexibility instead of excessively prescriptive requirements
  • Align with international data privacy frameworks
  • Promote cross-border data flows.

If these principles are not adhered to, future laws or regulations will end up being too prescriptive, rigid and rapidly outdated. Conversely, laws that are guided by these principles can result to a win-win situation for all stakeholders and allow organisations to prioritise their resources to achieve effective privacy outcomes while promoting innovating and responsibility.  Proactively, Ghana has enacted a cyber securities law to criminalise cyber fraud and the sharing protect of pornographic pictures and personal data. It is my hope that the law will live up to expectation, though I do not expect that it will be used to spy on citizens.

Even though the telecoms, internet and mobile service industry is a competitive domain, the fact that the sector has become a tool for economic development should compel service providers to collaborate or cooperate on critical areas of their operations for the benefit of Ghanaians. For instance, the interoperability among the mobile service providers is still fraught with problems. It is still difficulty to easily transfer money from MTN to Vodafone and AirtelTigo and vice versa. Therefore, policy and industry guidelines should aim at reducing unethical competition to the minimum and encourage cooperative behaviour in tandem with the vision of Ghana’s economic and human development.


GSMA. 2021. The Mobile Economy. GSM Association

GSMA. 2020. The State of Mobile Internet Connectivity.

ITU. 2020.  Digital Skills Assessment Guidebook

UNESCO.  2018. A Global Framework of Reference on Digital Literacy Skills for Indicator.

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