Going through the POTRAZ telecoms sector report for the first quarter of 2018 was quite interesting. One can’t help but think we are on a downward trajectory when they notice that mobile penetration has fallen by an alarming 16.8%. Even though that’s almost a fifth, this drop isn’t as big a deal in the “how many Zimbabweans have phones?“, debate.
At the end of 2017 the mobile penetration rate was at 102.7% and after the first three months of this year, that number now lies at 84.6%. Though this number is concerning I think it’s also a reflection of other events in the telecommunications industry and overall it should not be a cause for sleepless nights for the regulator or anyone observing the industry.
Initially, before I discovered that mobile penetration rate is not necessarily reflective of the number of people with mobile devices I used to get baffled. In a similar vein, I know that some may be confused by the fact that mobile penetration fell from 102.7% to 84.6%. How was it above 100% to begin with? Does that mean everyone in the country had a phone and then somehow there were extra phones that can’t be accounted for?
Far from it!
What is mobile penetration and what exactly does it represent?
Mobile penetration rate is is often used to mean the number of active mobile phone users per 100 people within a specific population, which is technically not a penetration rate as it does not account for users having multiple mobile phones and hence can exceed 100% due to double counting.
The multitudes who have two devices are a crucial to consider if you are looking at mobile penetration rate in African countries. A better number to look at is unique subscription rate but the regulator does not disclose that data. Or maybe they don’t collect it. We will have to confirm that.
With around 40% of the population being under the age of 14, expecting the current 84.6% mobile penetration to be a true reflection of the number of individuals who actually have mobile cell phones in Zimbabwe would be reckless.
So what factors made the number balloon to over 100% at one point?
NetOne just lost 2 million customers
As recently reported, NetOne lost almost half its customer base from the last quarter. The 2.3 million customers NetOne dropped cannot be entirely accounted for since Econet only added 162 724 whilst Telecel lost 203 382 during this same period.
So does this mean over 2 million Zimbabweans no longer have phones since the end of March? It’s not impossible but a more plausible explanation is that many people were registered with two networks. Many probably still are but after NetOne’s OneFusion-based implosion there are a lot fewer people who are still using two networks.
Though this statistic is interesting, it is also constantly shifting and is hard to predict. In the first quarter of last year, the mobile penetration was at 94.5%. In the second and third quarters, it rose to 97% and 100.5% respectively before peaking at 102.7% at the end of the year.
The regulator does not seem to be sweating over the drop and in their report they noted:
Although the mobile penetration rate experienced a big decline in the first quarter of 2018, it is expected to grow marginally during the course of the year.
Another reason why I think this number might not rise drastically going forward is because of the fact that EcoCash is now open to all smartphone users in Zim, even if you are on NetOne or Telecel. This may mean that NetOne or Telecel subscribers who had a second phone will now just stick to their phone and download the EcoCash app.
So yes a steady rise is probably an accurate prediction and no don’t worry the number of Zimbabweans with phones is not dropping as drastically as that stat suggests at face value