Kenyans’ blossoming love affair with mobile phones

Mobile phones are increasingly becoming an integral part of Kenyans’ lives. They are there when a new baby is born — cameras at the ready to introduce the newborn to the extended family on Facebook or WhatsApp.

We use mobile phones to collect funds for marriage ceremonies and to receive condolences in the wake of death.

Even our most mundane moments, on a slow elevator ride or stuck in slow traffic, we turn to our mobile phones.

But it is more than the device that enthrals us. It is the access it grants us to the Internet. Mobile data dominates the Internet market in Kenya and in Africa. Up to 99.5  per cent of Internet subscription in Kenya are via the mobile devices.

However, it is only now that the behaviour of Kenyan and African mobile data users is coming to the light.


Majority of Kenyans surveyed recently by Deloitte turn to their mobile phones within minutes of waking up.

The mobile phone has also turned into the modern grown-ups’ strange version of a lullaby — 53 per cent of Kenyans check their phones right before they sleep.

The second-screen phenomenon has not bypassed Kenyans. As they watch the newest TV series or film, their mobile phone is never far away.

Liking, sharing, tweeting

But what exactly are these people doing when they go online on their mobile phones? This question has a rather straightforward response — Kenyans, and Africans in general, are expending hours on social media sites.

Facebook is dominant. As of 2014, there were 4.5 million monthly active Facebook users in Kenya, 95 per cent of them were visiting the website via mobile phones. In total, there are 100 million active Facebook users in Africa.

But Kenyans are using their mobile phones to do more than ‘‘like’’ funny posts on Facebook. They are also feeding their political gossip habit.

Several indicators have ranked visiting news sites as a popular activity on mobile devices, second only to social media.

Reading these signs, Opera Mini has argued that generation of local content will be key to growing the region’s Internet users.

“Opera Mini users are accessing local news as much as 300 per cent more than in 2014,” said the company in a report released earlier this month.

There is rising hunger for media-rich content. Kenyans want to listen to online radio. They want to stream news and YouTube videos. However, activity on this front is still restricted to short-form content due to prohibitive data costs.

Shopping is also largely beyond the reach of mobile data. Although m-commerce is growing, Deloitte shows that only 10 per cent of surveyed Kenyans have ever used their phones to make an online purchase while only three per cent use phones to buy something once a week. 

Nevertheless, there is expectation that these numbers will be on upward trend given rising penetration of smartphones as well as the increasing number of products and services being sold via mobile data.

The key to pushing up shopping and trade via mobile data partly lies in getting cheaper smartphones into the hands of Kenyans.

Android’s dominance

In 2011, Huawei introduced Kenya to the Ideos U8150 smartphone. It retailed at about Sh8,000 and came in a range of bright colours— electric blue, burning pink and shouting yellow. For many Kenyans, the Ideos would be their first smartphone experience.

The half-decade since has seen a dominance of android-operating smartphones at both the high-end and low-end of the Kenyan market. Part of this has to do with the fact that Apple is yet to seriously turn its attention to a continent on the threshold between feature and smartphone.

It also has to do with the aggression with which Chinese and South Korean manufacturers have pushed their relatively cheap devices. They’ve had the eager support of local mobile operators that have not shied away from a promotion or discount that might, in the long run, boost data usage on their networks.

Currently, there are over 10 million smartphones operating in the Kenyan market. While Kenya-specific predictions are not available, the GSM Association estimates that by 2020, there will be 540 million smartphones on the continent.

Despite this progress mobile data, especially accessed via smartphones, remains expensive for many Kenyans and Africans.

Cents for MBs

The GSM Association argues that tax reforms can driven down smartphone costs. Across the region, 20 per cent of the total cost of a mobile phone is eaten up by taxes. In Kenya, the ratio is slightly higher at 21 per cent.

And even with the costs of data falling in Africa, it remains high relative to global standards.

McKinsey Institute shows that an average German can pay for 500 megabytes of data with the pay from just one hour of work.

On the other hand, a Nigerian has to work 28.2 hours to pay for the same amount of data.

In Kenya, there are a number of companies attempting to address this high cost of data through alternative routes. Poa Internet and Liquid Telecom are broadcasting Wi-Fi at public areas in low-income urban or underserved rural areas.

Beyond the direct costs of buying data, Kenyans are paying for their Internet in other ways. Background activities running on smartphones eat up as much as 30 per cent of all mobile data. The biggest culprits are Facebook’s messenger app and Gmail.

Largely due to prohibitive costs, at least 14.7 per cent of Kenyans live in a world absent of Internet services.
Many of them are in far-flung rural areas which telecom companies are yet to deem profitable.

But beyond the direct costs of data, other factors continue to make the digital divide insurmountable for Africans.

Society’s gender development gap also manifests itself online. Women are less likely to own mobile phones and when they do they are likely to use them to access the Internet.

For the illiterate, using the Internet via a text-based medium can be a daunting task. Persons living with disabilities have to go through more hoops before accessing the Internet — mobile phone settings have to be modified for the blind, for instance.

And most of the disability-friendly features are found in only the most expensive smartphones.