Mobiles in developing countries: hope or mirage?

The World Bank’s last edition of the World Development Indicators stated that Seventy percent of mobile phone subscribers are in developing economies, a mantra that was also repeated on Saturday April 25th, 2009, at Africa Gathering. At least during the second talk it was said that 61% of the 2.7 billion mobile phones in the world are in developing countries, as reported by Ken Banks. Besides whether it is 61% or 70%, the thing is that 83.3% of the World population live in developing countries, a fact that puts in perspective the relative (i.e. per capita) penetration of mobile phones in relationship with the rest of the World’s.

So, is there no reason to be optimistic about mobiles in Africa, then? Well, it depends. Let’s bring some data in for the rescue:

Mobile cellular subscribers 000s (2002) 000s (2007) Compound annual growth rate Cellphones per habitant (%) % digital % of total phones (mobile + fixed)
Africa
36923.8
274088.0
49.3
28.4
91.0
89.6
Americas
255451.3
656927.1
20.8
72.2
30.9
69.8
Asia
443937.4
1497499.0
27.5
37.7
69.1
70.6
Europe
405447.7
895057.4
17.2
110.9
84.1
72.9
Oceania
15458.9
27011.5
11.8
79.4
97.6
69.2
WTI
1157219.1
3350583.0
23.7
50.1
67.6
72.2

Source: ITU ICT Eye

Or, graphically:

Graphic: Factors of inequality and exclusion in the Network SocietySource: ITU ICT Eye

Data don’t clearly show the distinction between developing and developed countries, though it can be roughly inferred at least by (sorry for the rude simplification) looking at Africa and Asia (with mostly Low and Lower-middle income economies with very few exceptions — see the World Bank’s Country Classification). The big highlights are:

  • Developing countries have less cellphones per capita than developed ones
  • Most phones in developing countries are mobile and digital
  • The compound annual growth rate of mobile telephony is higher the less saturated is the market

A logical comment about the last statement would be that it’s natural that less penetration leads to higher annual growth rates. Well, it is not that logical: on the one hand, there are countries with penetration rates above 150% (United Arab Emirates, Macao, Italy, Qatar or Hong Kong), so the concept of “saturation” is a tricky one; on the other hand, there are plenty of other commodities and capital goods (e.g. cars or washing machines) that not even dream of reaching these growth rates.

That said, one need to be cautious when stating that there are “many” cellphones in developing countries: this is true in absolute terms, but most untrue in relative ones. But reality shouts out loud that this is changing at an overwhelming speed and that innovation happens at a terrific pace.

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2009) “Mobiles in developing countries: hope or mirage?” In ICTlogy, #67, April 2009. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
Retrieved month dd, yyyy from http://ictlogy.net/review/?p=2040

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