DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — Hundreds of CEOs and business directors convened in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, for the fourth Mobile 360 Africa conference that was held from July 26 — 28. The meeting is held annually by GSMA (Group Spécial Mobile), a global association of mobile companies and operators. According to Tanzania Daily News, more than 500 telecommunication companies and stakeholders were represented at the three-day meeting this year, which focused on how the private sector can bring better mobile connectivity to more Africans.
Among the most exciting announcements was the news of a new infrastructure project in Tanzania that will bring mobile internet to an additional 13 million Tanzanians, many of whom live in rural areas across the country.
While the use of internet and mobile networks is growing at amazing rates in many places in Africa, Tanzania’s mobile technology has for years defined the country as a clear leader in this realm. According to a study from the Pew Research Center, only 10 percent of Tanzanians had cell phones in 2002; by 2014 the number was 73 percent and those figures are still rising sharply. Mobile banking and financial services are extremely popular in Tanzania with customer transactions reaching over $2 billion a month.
Such achievements come not only from elaborate development plans on the part of mobile operating companies, but also enthusiastic collaboration from the Tanzanian government. The Head of Corporate Communications of the Tanzania Communication Regulatory Authority, Innocent Mungy, boasted at this year’s conference that Tanzania has some of the cheapest internet prices in the world, with the cost of 40 GB of data as low as $22.
Tanzania’s leadership in this sphere was characterized by its great achievements and its ambitious goals for the future; nonetheless, the country still has a lot of progress to make.
The government is hoping that the recently announced infrastructure project, which is a collaboration between three major East African mobile network operators, will address a notable disparity in mobile connectivity that exists between urban and rural populations. While most Tanzanians own a cell phone, only 35 percent have access to a 3G network — most of these people are city-dwellers.
This is a significant issue when half of 49 million Tanzanians live in the rural countryside — precisely the population the project proposed to reach. The Director General of GSMA, Mats Granryd, claims that this project, like many others that will launch in following years, will empower millions of underserved Africans. Such initiatives come from a commitment to “connecting the unconnected,” Granryd said in a statement at the conference, “enabling them to gain access to essential internet services.”
Indeed such development in Tanzania’s mobile technology and connectivity will almost certainly bring countless benefits to the country’s rural populations. IT News Africa reported in July on research that shows that access to mobile internet can raise small farmers’ revenue by up to 50 percent. Likewise, the benefits of mobile e-commerce that so many already use could be groundbreaking for rural Tanzanians, relieving them of the risks of having to carry around cash and giving them access to quality financial services when they may live hours from the nearest bank. These are just a couple of examples, not to mention that mobile internet has proven invaluable in East Africa for e-health, e-education and even ‘e-Governance’, which empowers rural residents to contact and hold their governments accountable.
Tanzania’s government and mobile operators are even focusing on closing gender inequalities by striving to empower more women. The conference saw two major Tanzanian mobile operators, Tigo and Smart, sign on to GSMA’s Connected Women Commitment Initiative. These companies will make an effort to educate Tanzanian women in digital literacy and strive to reach more women with their services and products; they hope to open unprecedented opportunities for a population that has disproportionately low rates of mobile connectivity. Zantel, Zanzibar’s biggest mobile operator, announced similar intentions at the conference.
New economic and social opportunities for women and rural populations can help everyone, and generally have huge economic benefits for developing countries. Tanzania’s plans for mobile technology are promising in this regard, especially considering what the nation has already achieved. Such progress likely holds valuable lessons for Tanzania’s neighbors on the continent and throughout the rest of the world.
According to Mr. Mungy, Tanzania’s leadership in the mobile realm is part of the reason they hosted the Mobile 360 Africa Conference this year, cultivating tech business leaders from around the world. “As much as we want to learn from them,” he said in a press meeting at the conference, “they also want to learn from us, to understand how we got where we are.”
– Charlie Tomb