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African Telecoms are “Recession-Proof.” Oh Really?

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According to a story in today’s ITNewsAfrica, we don’t need to worry about the economic downturn because – hey! Africa’s telecom sector is the fastest growing in the world. Break out the champagne!

Currently, there is 90% penetration for mobile phones throughout the continent, demonstrating a year-on-year growth rate of 41% since 2007. This translates to over 300 million phones in Africa, one of which I know for a fact is sitting in my mother’s bureau, unloved and unused because it’s not a Nokia.

But wait! It gets better: because the fixed line telephony system is so bad, mobile technology has stepped into the breach, giving us 3G, which will liberate us all and cause our souls to sing while we download episodes of Big Brother Africa to our mobile phones. Or something.

Can I get a reality check with that dream, please? While it is all very well to sing the praises of new technologies and the opportunity for progress that they bring, it is also important to remember that we’re not quite there yet. How many of you use your mobile phone for anything other than text and voice? At a push, maybe some of us have email capability. But we aren’t taking full advantage yet because: a) the infrastructure isn’t quite there yet, and b) the cost of the technology needs to come down drastically before it can become widespread.

Let’s also not forget that while the telecoms companies might be African, they either have major shareholders or parent companies who are international. The global credit crunch has sucked investment money out of the international finance system, and it has only just begun. The African telecoms might be in a strong position in their home markets, but they are now part of the global market and international investors are feeling nervous. No one is immune, and we would do well to remember that.

So, thank you for your optimism, ITNewsAfrica, but I will remain cynical until the undersea cables are hooked up and the cost of my monthly comms bill no longer resembles an old-style phone number.

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