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Digital Inclusion

Global coalition promises more affordable smartphones for Africa

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The GSMA, World Bank, and key members of the telecoms ecosystem have today announced a new coalition to improve handset affordability for lower-income populations, including in sub-Saharan Africa.

Members of the Handset Affordability Coalition include major global mobile operators, vendors, device ecosystem players, international organizations and financing institutions like the World Bank Group, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Smart Africa and the World Economic Forum's Edison Alliance.

The coalition will collaborate to improve access to affordable Internet-enabled devices to close the "usage gap," which holds back around 3 billion people worldwide from maximizing their potential in the global digital economy.

The GSMA defines the usage gap as individuals who are not using the mobile Internet despite living in an area that is covered by a mobile network. In contrast, the coverage gap is people living in areas without any mobile broadband coverage at all.

Coalition members include African telecoms operators MTN, Orange, Axian Telecom, Ethio Telecom and Vodafone (which operates in Africa through subsidiary Vodacom).

Device equipment manufacturers include Honor, Huawei, ZTE and MobiWire, while device ecosystem players like Google, KaiOS, Intelligra and M-Kopa are also on board.

Accessibility for all income levels

Mobile remains the primary – and often only – way people in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) access the Internet, accounting for 84% of broadband connections in 2023, the GSMA said in a statement.

Yet 3 billion people (38% of the world's population) live in areas covered by mobile Internet but do not use it due to barriers, including digital literacy and skills, lack of relevant content, online safety and access. Handset affordability is often recognized as the most significant barrier to getting people online.

The new coalition will assess multiple "levers" to reduce the cost of entry into the digital economy for low-income populations, with particular focus on LMICs and areas where handset affordability presents the highest barrier to getting online, such as in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

The GSMA pointed out that Africans are affected by issues like the high cost of phones – which can cost 30% of their monthly income – which hinders access to critical services and economic opportunities, exacerbating the digital divide.

If smartphones could be retailed at around $20, an additional 270 million Africans could afford handsets, potentially reducing the usage gap by 23%.

"Mobile has helped billions of people worldwide to play an active role in our increasingly digital world, but the cost of entry can still be too high for many on low incomes. Together with global mobile operators, and the support of the World Bank Group and other key coalition members, we're determined to act on this issue," GSMA Director General Mats Granryd said in a statement about the coalition.

"By building creative solutions to bring mobile internet into the hands of those who need it the most, we believe we can make real strides towards closing the Usage Gap and help millions more maximise their potential by getting online," he added.

By exploring new solutions, including "de-risking" financing mechanisms, with the support of the World Bank Group, the coalition will enhance and complement ongoing efforts to expand digital access and affordability.

ITU Secretary General Doreen Bogdan-Martin said that in an age of unimaginable digital opportunities, devices are still out of reach for too many.

"With the 2025 Broadband Commission affordability target on the horizon, this new global coalition is an excellent complement to the work of the Commission's Working Group on Smartphone Access. It has the power to accelerate affordability and bring us one step closer to universal meaningful connectivity, a cornerstone of ITU's mission and our digital future," Bogdan-Martin added.

ITU Secretary General Doreen Bogdan-Martin speaking at MWC Kigali 2023 in Rwanda.  (Source: GSMA)
ITU Secretary General Doreen Bogdan-Martin speaking at MWC Kigali 2023 in Rwanda.
(Source: GSMA)

"Making internet connected devices more affordable is critical to accelerating digitalization in developing countries and ensuring no one is left behind," Guangzhe Chen, VP for infrastructure at the World Bank, said in a statement.

"We've seen the power of digital technologies to unlock growth and job creation and to ease access to education and health services, but people must first be connected to make this a reality. This coalition brings together key players across industry and the development community to help bring this aspiration to life," Chen continued.

Going forward, the GSMA said it would continue to facilitate close collaboration between coalition members to share learnings and to assess and deploy tailored, innovative models that can effectively narrow the usage gap.

Related posts:

*Top image source: GSMA.

— Paula Gilbert, Editor, Connecting Africa

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