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Digital Inclusion

Interview: Econet Wireless Burundi CEO Nepias Njaravaza on growing mobile penetration

Econet Wireless Burundi CEO Nepias Njaravaza sat down with Connecting Africa Editor Paula Gilbert at the NOVACOM Digital Transformation Strategy Summit in Franschhoek, South Africa, to talk about the mobile market in Burundi.

Econet Wireless Burundi is the biggest mobile operator in the country with almost 55% market share in mid-2023, according to statistics from market research company Omdia, a sister company of Connecting Africa.

Econet is currently upgrading the capacity on its 3G network and rolling out more 4G sites.

"If you look at it as of now, I can't say Burundi is ready for 5G. If you have got a good 4G and 3G network, you can still drive Internet penetration and that is where our focus is as of now," he said.

Njaravaza said 3G penetration is widespread, but 4G is still only in major towns and cities. Econet is working to expand the network further afield.

"Internet penetration is not only about rolling out the network. There are also other issues that you have to consider. The issue of literacy is one pillar in terms of driving Internet penetration in any country. When you look at the affordability of the devices it's another key pillar that we have to consider," Njaravaza added.

With a population of over 13 million people, Burundi has a mobile penetration rate of around 60% but an Internet penetration rate of just 25%. Njaravaza said this means huge potential for data services in the country.

"About five years ago [Internet penetration] was at 5% and now we are sitting at about 25%, and with the effort we are making in the country we hope that in the next five years we will be able to reach 50%," he said.

Njaravaza discussed the fintech market in Burundi and the evolution of mobile financial services beyond peer-to-peer payments.

He also commented on the startup ecosystem in Burundi and how the country is lagging behind its East African neighbors when it comes to financial inclusion, but that concerted efforts are being made by the government and the private sector to drive inclusion and Internet penetration.

Njaravaza said that Econet was the first operator in Burundi to roll out mobile financial services and to launch mobile data services in the country.

"In the short to medium term, we are focusing on data, we are heavily investing in data and also we are heavily investing in mobile financial services platforms that are agile because that is what we are seeing as the future," he continued.

Paula Gilbert, Editor, Connecting Africa

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