Ordinarily, Zimbabwe should be celebrating a steady growth in internet access as more of its citizens join the digital age and go on cyberspace.
However, the country should be concerned about subscribers’ overreliance on mobile internet, which according to the latest Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) report made up 95,6% of total internet, and over the top (OTT) services as an indication of a cash-strapped and increasingly informalised economy.
In the case of Zimbabwe, adoption of mobile data and a boom in the usage of OTT services such as WhatsApp and Facebook is nothing to write home about given that it is a mere indication of growing poverty among citizens who are bearing the brunt of company closures and job loses that have resulted in dwindling disposable incomes.
Zimbabwe’s economic malaise characterised by low productivity and company closures has left consumers with very little disposable income.
As such, consumers have no choice but to go for the most affordable product on the market.
According to Potraz, Zimbabwe’s internet penetration rate increased by 1,5% to reach 48,1% in the fourth quarter of 2015 from 46,6% recorded in the previous quarter. Mobile internet and data utilisation increased by 27,4% to record 1,208,379GB from 944,268GB recorded in the previous quarter largely driven by OTT services.
WhatsApp and Facebook bundles accounted for 34% and 3% of mobile data usage with the remaining 63% being for other countless data usages.
“Since the introduction of WhatsApp and Facebook bundles by the mobile operators a lot of data has been consumed through these OTT packages as bundles,” Potraz says in its 2015 fourth quarter report.
ICT blogger Nigel Gambanga said mobile operators introduced data bundles as a way of monetising OTT services which had initially accelerated the decline of voice revenue.
“WhatsApp’s appeal doesn’t just lie in the data budget and economics. Thanks to its multimedia capabilities, the service has become arguably the most relevant tool for sharing images, audio and video content, a functionality that has been exploited by content creators and anyone else trying to share the latest joke or viral clip,” said Gambanga in an article published on TechZim.
“The bundles became a huge hit because of their value proposition to the Zimbabwean “mobile internet elite” which struggles with high broadband costs and limited disposable incomes due to the tough economic environment. A US$3 monthly subscription guarantees access to a service that has voice calling and chat capabilities even when a subscriber fails to top up with conventional data.”
Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce (ZNCC) CE Chris Mugaga said mobile data dominates internet data usage because the mobile phone remains the most available gadget for communications in the country given that very few Zimbabweans have access to conventional internet set up in offices due to the informalisation of the economy.
Mugaga said OTT constitute the bulk of internet use because it is undeniably affordable compared to voice calls.
“We certainly cannot discount the fact that poverty has pushed people to prefer your WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter.
The use of OTT services is actually evidence that the economy is informalised, people are not working in offices. It also shows that there is higher probability that most communications by Zimbabweans is on non-business matters given the heavy use of social media,” said Mugaga, adding one can actually look at such numbers and conclude that Labour Productivity in Zimbabwe is low.
“The times are certainly not rosy for network operators such given that communication will be executed at a very cheap rate,” said Mugaga.
“This calls for such companies to urgently refocus their strategies and cease relying on voice. Gone are the days of high margins per minute call which also implies that the telecoms will be one of the sectors hardest hit by both deflation and informalisation.”
Oxlink Capital managing director Brains Muchemwa attributed the use of OTT services to cultural changes culture.
“The mutating social tastes, more than anything else, have driven demand for mobile data to access OTT services,” Muchemwa said. “However, such factors as high unemployment rates among largely the youths mean that most people are idle and end up spending inordinate amounts of time on social media.”
Technomag founder Toneo Rutsito said communication was too expensive in Zimbabwe, hence the adoption of more affordable OTT services.
“The 95% mobile date does not translate to literacy or information exchange but rather adoption of a cheap communication tool,” Rutsito said.
“While technically WhatsApp is not the Internet the sad reality is we are celebrating acceptance of an OTT over actual Internet Penetration because the larger part of the nation remains ignorant of the Internet and it’s pros and cons while basically everyone is on WhatsApp only because it’s a cheap tool of communication.”
Going forward, Rutsito said government and private players should educate the nation on Internet.