What does Zimbabwe’s insignificant smartphone penetration mean?

Victor Mukandatsama Avatar

Don’t let those astounding numbers on Zimbabwe’s mobile phone penetration rate (90.3% in the last quarter) fool you, when it comes to using phones for broadband, we are not as advanced and are far from “smart”.

According to Econet’s latest financial results, the smartphone penetration on its network is approximately 15%. That’s pretty close to the national figure, largely because of Econet’s massive chunk of mobile broadband subscribers. POTRAZ, the regulator doesn’t issue that so we estimate it to be hovering somewhere close to that 15%.

This means that the majority of mobile communications are conducted via feature phones and basic cellphones with the actual smartphones accounting for a small portion. Simply put, smartphones are not yet as popular, or rather widespread, as we all would like to believe.

There are three basic categories of mobile phones; the “dumb phone”  aka mbudzi,  the feature phone and then the smartphone. The dumb phones provides the basic functions like calling and messaging via SMS. A feature phone has a fixed set of functions beyond voice calling and text messaging (PC Mag) such as web browsing and email.

A smartphone on the other hand has all the other features you would find on a computer with the added advantage of mobility. The difference between a smartphone and a feature phone is becoming more and more difficult to tell which augurs positively to the data consumption statistics possibly encroaching to 20%.

What does this 15% mean really?

The realisation that there are not that many of us with smartphones revealed a number of sobering conclusions. Firstly if these stats are indeed true, MNOs with all their “investing in infrastructure and expansion” should really be in no hurry to upgrade to data enabling technologies like LTE/4G.

This explains the slow movement we’ve seen into 4G rollout and also raises questions on NetOne’s strategy with its $200 million 4G/LTE drive.

I am inclined to believe that we are still to exhaust the capacity created by the current networks. If anything, the cost of expansion will really go to coverage and voice carrying rather than data.

Secondly, in as much as ISPs were laying spaghetti fibre networks across the entirety of the country, it is possible that this new capacity would be largely idle were it not for voice. I strongly feel that we now have a huge backhaul network that is underutilised and has not found a retail plan to match the investment.

This could be possibly why data is still very expensive. Given the fact that internet consumption is largely via mobile devices, it is telling that with the 15%, consumers are largely not “biting”.

There have been concerted efforts to roll out FTTH solutions but the current pricing of common WiFi offloading such as the TelOne’s $1 for 100 MB shows that we are not yet we would desire to be.

We can, of course, talk about the broadband consumption by corporates, but that only goes on to prove that after working hours that capacity is largely idle.

Thirdly, to the developing ICT community, it means that if you are an entrepreneur and you are looking to develop the most widely used VAS services and you have based it on data consuming mobile applications, you are most likely going to service a fewer constituency than 15% of mobile phone users.

This is evidenced by the fact that we cannot track the successes of most applications developed locally and downloaded on the various play stores for Android, iOS or Windows (the major smartphone OS).

A look on the non-smart side of VAS provision will, however, tell a different story. A good example is how the combined total of Zimpapers and Alpha Media news applications can easily boast of over 500,000 subscribers via SMS.

While WhatsApp sounds great and everyone seems to have it, it is in fact lesser than 15% of phone users who have it. Though subscribers may not be initiating use of SMS, the platform as a delivery (receiving) channel is clearly more effective.



  1. Tech Analyst

    Well I think it would have been better for the writer to base their opinion on more recent stats rather than take stats from October 2014!
    With the significant influx of smartphones locally especially those powered by android and the continually reduction in prizes over the past few months it’s likely that smartphone use has actually moved from 15% to something significantly higher up.
    A good example is how android device use has clearly grown over the past few months to be leading operating system taking over from Nokia is jst a few months a fact acknowledged by Techzim: http://www.techzim.co.zw/2015/02/android-takes-leading-mobile-operating-system-zimbabwe/ .So really for the period when this 15% figure was released to now a lot has happened so doubt we u can base an article on that.

  2. John Mukandatsama

    thanks for the infor

  3. L.S.M Kabweza

    I have no idea what Eonet defines as smartphone. My definition is not the “mobile computer one”. it’s anything that can run WhatsApp, and certainly I don’t think of the 6 million econet subscribers (Dec 2014) only 900k have WhatsApp.

    1. Tapiwa✓

      My definition is not the “mobile computer one”. it’s anything that can run WhatsApp
      I don’t think that’s an accurate metric, considering that WhatsApp has a J2ME client that can run on Feature-phones

      I don’t consider any Nokia S40 phone to be a ‘smartphone’, but WhatsApp runs fine on them. Examples of S40 phones: Nokia X2-00 & Asha 201

    2. Allaz

      I have to disagree – we can’t call Nokia Asha a smartphone – Imbudzi – maybe very a clever goat, but it still goes MMEEEEH!

      If you’re gonna use the “anything that can run whatsapp” theory, I think you would also need to looks at the WAY an Asha runs whatsapp. What I mean to say is – Asha can’t do for other java apps what it does for whatsapp. It can’t run other apps in the background, multitask other apps – ONLY WHATSAPP. It was basically manipulated to run whatsapp coz Nokia at the time had a special arrangement with whatsapp so they could push more devices. But other apps on an Asha fone simply can’t do the things that whatsapp can – so I think that this aspect HAS TO disqualify Nokia Asha being able to call itself a smartphone. Also, the difference between an Asha and a PROPER SMARTPHONE in terms of functional is HUGE. Way bigger that the functionality variance between Windows/Android/iOS phones. That gulf between an Asha fone and the other “operating system” phones is far to wide for them to share the same category.

  4. macd chip

    Smartphone growth is large driven by the isp not users. The ISP needs to have a network first which can accomodate data demands from such devices.

    Then they need to promote other services which will make one attracted to use on that network plus data have to be affordable

    They also need to make smartphones readily available and cheap to the end user to acquire. They have a strong upper hand in negotiating with manufacturers of smartphones.

    What turns to happen is that most isp in Zim are reactive to the markets, they are not proactive.

  5. Jimminy Cricket

    Actual smartphone penetration rates are not readily available from verifiable channels in Zimbabwe however based on demographic earning information in relative developing territories the smartphone penetration in our country is estimated at around 18%.

    Anyone out there have actual verifiable information relating?

  6. wallay

    a smart phone can be any handheld device that can run an os blackberry, android, ios, windows. gtel, huexl, both run on android and they have flooded the market.
    the stats can’t be right

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