'Mobile Is My Soul': More About Cell Phones in the South of Africa

This is a guest post by Laura Czerniewicz. Laura is the Director of the Centre for Educational Technology (CET) at the University of Capetown in South Africa.

Keeping track of what South Africans are doing with technology is really hard, and especially so when it comes to learning. There is lots of anecdotal evidence, and like all academics, we all quote what our kids are up to (we should know better, they are hardly typical), and then there is all the media hype. But in a country with no centralised elearning policies, resources or think tanks, no PEW or Educause, we have to use what we can get. One useful mechanism is the South African census which is undertaken every four years, amidst much fanfare and with much effort, especially in crime-suspicious South Africa where census takers have a hard time getting access to homes and people. The data gathered is useful but the last census took place in 2007, and in a fast changing environment that is old hat!

Another way of keeping up with South African technology habits is through the work of market researchers. Especially useful is the South African Advertising Research Foundation’s extensive bi-annual (every six months) AMPS surveys, which tracks a wide range of habits, media practices and product ownership.. Other marketing research reports provide data which can be distilled for use by learning designers and educators.

The AMPS studies make a point of investigating right across the population, rich and poor, urban and rural. And the findings are fascinating!

In 2009 AMPS found that:

  • 1.7% of South Africans have home loans (ie bank mortgages)
  • 16% have a home telephone (land line) (down 2% since 2008)
  • 55% of South Africans have a bank account
  • 70 % personally own a cell phone

This last statistic is cause for pause.

Besides anything else, it’s a lower figure than others, even taking into account that the urban sector percentage is 77% according to AMPS. An organisation focusing on the use of mobiles for social impact, mobileactive, reports that the number of cell phone subscribers in 2007 was 87%  (and that was three years ago).

Lets make it clear that unlike in the rest of the world, cell phones are not a big deal because of the arrival of the iPhone. It is estimated that amongst South Africa’s almost 50 million people,  there are only approximately 75000 iPhones (according to Robinson in www.bizcommunity.com) .

So in South Africa, when we talk about cell phones we don’t mean those morphed all in one-virtually—a- TV-virtually- a-mini-computer-type smartphones.  We mean the common-or-garden numbers which have been around for while now and not been taken much notice of (see my previous post).  AMPs’ conservative figures would mean 35 million ordinary mobiles, but Robinson estimated recently that there are 44 million cell phones in the country

And of these, prepaid cell phones are by far the most common – of the 70% of cell phone ownership, 61% are prepaid not contracts. This puts them in the hands of everyone in society. As does the fact that 96% of the country’s population is covered by mobile telephony (according to mobileactive and that was in 2006).

Not only are cell phones ubiquitous, they are more pervasive than other technologies

These two graphs (ITU 2010) nicely illustrate how steep the curve is for developed countries is and how much higher the percentage of cell phone subscriptions is compared to internet users in those countries.

Even in 2009, in South Africa, three quarters  (76%) of AMPS respondents said they did not use a computer. Of those who do, just under half use it at work.

Compare that with the proportion of households with computers elsewhere!

This is in stark contrast with the cell phones which are not only used in all social strata, but cross social divides.

Thus, a survey of  high-school learners in South Africa by the Youth Research Unit at the University of South Africa (UNISA) analysed their results by school type finding a negligible difference. They found that 98-99% of high school learners across all school types owned a cell phone.

This commitment to cell phone ownership is revealed in a survey of students specifically in poor high schools in Cape Town which found that 77% of Grade 11 students owned their own phone, 18% used other people’s phones and 4% owned a sim card, but used other people’s phones to use it (Kreutzer 2009).

Cell phones provide more and relatively cheaper access than other internet technologies

The dramatic difference in penetration and price in PPP dollars (ie Purchasing Power Parity) is stark in these graphs.

In South Africa, Robinson in 2010 estimates conservatively that are approximately 10- to 12-million WAP-enabled cell phone users in SA, and Goldstuck  (2010) reports that for 450 000 users cell phones are the primary form of access to the Internet.

Amongst students the figures are very high, albeit variable. According to one study by two youth marketing agencies  (Student Village & Interact RDT) 78% of SA students access the internet via their cell phones. UNISA’s study of high school learners reported that 75.4 % of the respondents indicated that they accessed the Internet via their cellphones. The Kreutzer study in poor schools was even more revealing: 93% of the Grade 11 learners reported  having used the internet on cell phones (ever), with  68% using their phones for internet access on a typical day, opposed to 39% using computers (Kreutzer 2009).

South Africans value cell phones and are prepared to spend money on them

Despite the growing popularity and uptake of mobile  cellular services in Africa, it remains the region with the relatively most expensive mobile prices, according to the ITU 2010. Average mobile cellular prices are as much as 17.7 per cent of monthly income in Africa (compared to a little as 1.1 per cent of monthly income in Europe.)

Cell phone users are prepared to make sacrifices for this to happen. Of 17 year old students in the poor schools, about half of all their expenses are spent on cell phones (Kreutzer 2009) – and remember that these are poor students.

Indeed, a market research company, Synovate, found that 84% of South Africans ‘cannot live’ without their cell phone, with unsurprisingly, highest dependency on their phones was reported in the 25 – 34 year old age group where  91% of which declared that they could not live without their cell phones, followed closely by 87% in the 16 – 24 age category. The older segment (50+) broke some stereotyping by falling close behind with 84% not able to live without their phones.

These strong feelings of identify are confirmed by our own research as well as those of our colleagues with the following comments being typical:

I can’t live without my cell phone. My whole life revolves around it

My phone is exciting- total independence

I couldn’t live without a cell phone–it has become so close to me

My mobile is my soul

What are students doing with these devices, these non-iPhones? And how are cell phones being used for learning? More about that in the next (and last) of these postings on cell phones in the South of Africa.


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9 Responses to 'Mobile Is My Soul': More About Cell Phones in the South of Africa

  1. Hi Laura

    Thanks for including our Internet numbers.

    In terms of cellphone ownership, AMPS’ 70% figure is spot-on. Our research at the time suggested 72% penetration (and in the world of typical market research margins of error, a 2% variance for a number like that means it is practically the same number).

    The reason it seems low is that most assessments of penetration look at accounts or connections, not users. In terms of connections, the figure is in fact more than 100% (around 49m SIM connections) penetration. The useful thing about any market passing the 100% penetration mark is that it then forces market watchers to educate themselves oin what penetration really means. While it was still 80% or 90%, it was like beating our heads against brick walls trying to explain that this did not mean 80% or 90% of people in SA having phones. Once it hit 100%, the truth began to dawn and the media in particular began asking the more important question: what percentage of the population uses cellphones, rather than how many connections are there per person in South Africa (two very different numbers).


  2. David Horwitz says:

    Hi Arthur,

    The high penetration figure also challenges us to understand how those users, many of them living in poverty use their cellphones. The emerging research seems to suggest to me (and I’m hardly an expert here) to be self consciously strategic and mostly focused on non voice uses (sms, web, mixit) certainly among young users

  3. Agreed. In voice, our research shows a high-level of SIM-swapping to avoid higher off-Net charges. The use of beeping (phoning someone and then dropping the call – using various patterns to denote various messages) to send non-verbal messages is also common. The use of Mxit and mobile Web is very much (but not exclusively) a youth phenomenon in disadvantaged communities.

  4. Laura — you are referencing a number from our website at MobileActive.org above. Please note that your reference is not quite correct. You say: “An organisation focusing on the use of mobiles for social impact, mobileactive, reports that the number of cell phone subscribers in 2007 was 87% (and that was three years ago).”

    What we actually report from publicly-available ITU data from 2007 (newer data is out, by the way that we are adding to the site) is the number of subscriptions per 100 – not subscribers. As Arthur points out above, we do not have any solid date on actual users or subscribers – all we get from the mobile operators is active SIM cards or subscriptions. As Arthur says: “what percentage of the population uses cellphones, rather than how many connections are there per person in South Africa (two very different numbers).”

    Richard Heeks elaborates on this in his blog post here: http://ict4dblog.wordpress.com/2009/03/22/beyond-subscriptions-actual-ownership-use-and-non-use-of-mobiles-in-developing-countries/. Kudos if you weed through that but it’s to date the best thinking on the subject.


    Katrin Verclas

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  6. Tony Harding says:

    Dear Laura

    I am glad to see that government, particularly DST, partnered by other institutions, is stepping into the area of m-learning.

    Your data is comprehensive, and I am glad to see that you have comments from others in the field, particularly Arthur Goldstuck.

    I have been researching different educational interventions which would ‘map to the ground’ in rural Limpopo, including m-learning solutions. The work has been funded by a private foundation. This has included obtaining a large amount of primary and secondary data on social and educational challenges in the specific project area (where I have been involved for nearly 25 years in different capacities), and location specific data about household cellphone ownership, including usage by youth.

    I don’t need to share any of the secondary data with you as it is the public domain

    I have been talking to an Indian company for a while, which is a leading innovator in the m-learning sector on the sub-continent. Enablem cut its teeth as a service provider to Nokia in India and other countries in the region, using Nokia’s proprietary software solutions. They have since progressed to developing their own solutions.

    In the meantime, Enablem has gone ahead and set up a number of international educational content provider relationships. This has included negotiating their own direct relationships with network service providers in the sub-continent.

    My friend, the CEO of Enablem, says:

    “I think the wireless bit is catching on – recently we released a tablet solution for schools to use in classrooms – teachers connect the tablet to a television or projector and it beam interactive (read applications) to students. The experience is great and content is created or aggregated (from app stores / web etc.) as required by the teacher. I think it has tremendous potential in the South African markets (the Indians are lapping it up and how ! ) This also helps to take away a little bit from the teacher-student ratio since there is a fantastic opportunity to standardize the experience and maintain quality.”

    The key to Enablem’s approach is their development of a software platform that renders data (information) on the different cellphones (makes and models, including sms-only enabled phones) in the market, and now tablets, which allows them to escape the grip of any one cellphone (tablet) manufacturer, cellphone (tablet) operating system, or proprietary software such as Nokia’s own offerings for m-learning.

    Another advantage is that the system is developed, further, for direct use by learners, with realtime evaluation tools and reports for teachers – using cellphone based technology, (on site, or remote).

    The platform enables text, audio, video, and progressive/ regressive multiple choice questions on content to be rendered on mobile devices.The modular learning packages are sold, but the business model favours sales through corporate clients oao the commissions charged by the network operators – 50 per cent!

    One of their most successful packages markets English learning to speakers of any of the 20 plus languages spoken in India. The market comprises mainly small traders and others wanting to get access to the formal job market, particularly the call centre job space.

    There is more that can be said, but I am subject to a confidentiality agreement.

    After all this has been said, the practicalities of IPR and foreign direct investment are formidable. This is why I am watching your discussions with DST with great interest.

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