The cost of handsets has become a significant barrier to mobile Internet adoption and use.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced how
important connectivity is in the modern world.
As it has become more challenging to
communicate directly, the use of ICT has become even more critical for the
dissemination of information by government, experts, and the media.
The key to digital communication is the phone – especially a smartphone.
The smartphone allows people to stay in touch with their friends and families, receive important information, and educate themselves during these tough times.
Smartphones may become even more crucial
when the outbreak is brought under control.
However, the cost of handsets is a significant barrier to mobile Internet adoption and use – and this is not the fault of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Low-cost devices are often out of the reach
of those in poverty, which is a problem considering that these devices can be
key enablers for escaping poverty.
Research in countries like Tanzania and India found that the extremely poor – those who earn less than $2 per day – would have to spend 16% of their annual income just to purchase an average-priced smartphone. For people who are struggling to eat on a daily basis, using this percentage of their income is not a rational option.
However, device manufacturers cannot offer phones at a significantly more affordable rate because they have costs of their own to manage.
For this reason, it is necessary to develop business models which ensure that those in poverty can own smartphones.
Given the nature of the COVID-19 crisis,
there is no better time to develop such business models and get more Kenyans
are not a luxury
One of the reasons smartphones are
expensive in Kenya, and Africa as a whole, is that they incur high taxes.
In fact, import taxes and duties can reach
as high as 50% of the total device cost in some African countries.
This is partially due to high costs for
device transportation – particularly to emerging markets.
A simple way to reduce these tax costs could be by ceasing to class smartphones as luxury items.
Smartphones have become more than a luxury
– they are now crucial sources of information and connectivity and not having
one is a significant barrier to economic prosperity.
If luxury tariffs were no longer due on
smartphones, it would make it possible to slash smartphone prices considerably
– making them more accessible to more African citizens.
This would be particularly beneficial to
the development and distribution of locally-manufactured smartphones – offering
significant opportunities for economic growth.
Another strategy could be to abolish the taxation and duties placed upon smartphones below a certain value.
This would result in citizens being able to
purchase these cheap smartphones, while still boosting government revenue
through airtime and data bundles, as well as income from other mobile income
for smartphone proliferation
While reducing the taxation on smartphones
is an obvious way to make smartphones more affordable, other strategies can
also reduce the cost of smartphones for low-income citizens.
One such strategy includes government getting involved in parts of the value chain – including marketing, distribution, and retail.
This would reduce the costs directly
incurred by smartphone makers by reducing the number of players within the
Another strategy would be government
assisting through subsidies or donations to NGOs and other entities – meaning
government would be subsidising the cost of devices for those who need them
These and other strategies should be
discussed by government, and strategies should be undertaken to facilitate the
increase in citizens who have smartphones, and by extension, access to the
Some examples of how governments can assist
through subsidies or other means include:
Argentina – Provided asset
financing to 8 million citizens to switch from 2G feature phones to 4G
Columbia – Allocated $90
million over three years to a policy which included subsidies for low-income
citizens for data and smartphones.
Malaysia – Launched a national
program to encourage youth to purchase 3G-enabled smartphones with a rebate on
certain phones – reducing the cost by 40%.
Pakistan government – used
funds to give smartphones to 30,000 low-income women.
uptake is important
ICT expert Charley Lewis told MyBroadband
that the drive for smartphone uptake in Africa is important for consumers as
those who do not have these devices are deprived of access to much of the
Internet and its benefits – such as highly useful apps.
“If pricing of entry-level smartphones can
be kept low, and priced into pay-as-you-go plans, and with data prices poised
to fall, I see no reason that there should not be an upsurge in smartphone
demand,” said Lewis.
“The benefits to universal access and
service, and to the increased data revenues, are surely to the benefit of users
and operators alike.”
The COVID-19 pandemic provides an
opportunity to develop and implement long-term solutions to the digital divide
In this regard, the first priority of
government should be to ensure that all Africans are able to access digital
platforms through devices like smartphones so that they can stay informed on
that which is important.
Making smartphones more accessible to a
larger number of Africans is key to this, as it could help to alleviate poverty
and improve the lives of these citizens.