SpaceX / Wikimedia Commons

The Rise of African Telecom

Rapid expansion of fiber, satellite, and mobile technology are improving day-to-day life in Africa - much of it thanks to private investment.

Africa’s a land of great untapped potential. The continent is full of natural resources, big cities, and a large, hardworking population. The “untapped” part is due to lack of infrastructure. 68% of Sub-Saharan Africa is without electricity, and it even flickers on-and-off in urban centers. Very little of the Sub-Saharan population has truly clean drinking water. And its telecommunications industry – internet, cell phones and communication service providers – lags the developed world. African countries are thus less able to take part in global commerce. But this gap is narrowing, as market forces strive to serve a growing pent-up demand.

Internet Access

By global standards, Africa’s internet access is low; reports Statista,the internet penetration rate stood at around 43 percent in 2021, below a global average of 66 percent.” But this is changing. 

Access has skyrocked the last two decades, with the numbers doubling to 570 million people in the last 7 years. Three out of the top five countries are in North Africa, but Sub-Sahara is catching up. There have been sharp internat usage increases in South Africa, Senegal and Nigeria, marked by $1 billion in private investment to expand coverage.

“By 2030, the continent could achieve rough parity with the rest of the world when three quarters of Africans are projected to become internet users,” Nathaniel Allen writes for the Brookings Institution.

As detailed below, much of the growth comes from mobile internet use. In Sudan, just 15% of internet use came from personal computers, the rest from mobile devices. 

Still, non-mobile internet access is expanding. notes that as of 2022 there were 71 existing or in-progress cable networks connected to Africa. 

“The terrestrial network capacity (i.e. kilometres of fibre deployed) has more than tripled between 2010 and 2020.” 

Market entrants beyond traditional telecom providers, including Google and Meta, are building infrastructure serving the African market. 

Other companies use satellites. Starlink, the SpaceX offshoot focused on internet coverage, entered African markets in early 2023. A longer standing entrant is the European satellite internet provider Eutelsat, which serves 200,000 Africans. Combined with terrestrial connections, satellite internet has potential to provide ubiquitous internet access. The user costs are still high on African incomes. Nonetheless, thousands have already started using Starlink in Africa, and the company looks to expand. 

Processing speed is slow, even in major cities, as I’ve found while staying in a number of them during my 1.5-year Global South trip. But 5G expansion and major fiber projects are improving the situation. Burkina Faso boosted its mobile speed ranking from among the slowest in Africa to near the top. A major component of this improvement was a fiber expansion project built by Chinese tech giant Huawei. Rwanda deregulated telecom service, with hundreds of new providers. This resulted in faster internet speed expansion than any other African country.

Even with access expanding, many Africans still don’t use internet, due to cost and lack of familiarity. But the continent is clearly embracing the internet’s transformative potential: Allen writes that over a million jobs and a $144 billion share of the African economy can be attributed to internet access.

The Mobile Revolution

Just as smartphones have become ubiquitous in the developed world, so too have they spread rapidly in Africa and other developing regions. Cell phone adoption within Sub-Sahara has reached 613 million connections, or about 50% adoption, up from 25% in 2012. Africans from young to old, working in cab driving to farming, have learned to leverage the smartphone in day-to-day life, for money transfers, navigation, and more. Students benefit from smartphones for academics, which are cheaper than laptops.

Mobile connection quality is growing quickly. 75% of sub-Saharan Africans have 3G access, and 50% have 4G. Connectivity is best in urban areas: while 88% of Africa’s urban population has a 4G connection, this coverage drops to 21% in rural areas. 

The smartphones are much cheaper than in the U.S., as various companies have rolled out models designed for the developing world. A number of Asian brands have phones for under $100, including the plethora of Chinese and Indian brands. Some “smart-feature phones” are as cheap as $20, and many people even use flip phones, which have at least some smartphone-style functions.  

Continued improvements in cellular technology are crucial for keeping this momentum going. The infrastructure that built Africa’s internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s is expensive to maintain and replace. However, cellular connections will likely side-step a lot of the legacy costs associated with the internet in developed nations. 

Pay as You Go Service

Some means to cell phone usage are a throwback to the early 2000s in the West. For instance, the “pay as you go” method of mobile access remains common in Africa. 

People tend to buy phone cards every week, says Mambwe Ngoma, a Zambian student, with options to either buy voice and text message plans or data plans, for instance, paying $1.20 for 180 minutes, accompanied by a 4-gigabyte SIM chip that’s good for one week once activated. 

Scott Beyer's route through Africa.

Buying data rather than voice and text message cards means using services like Facebook, WhatsApp and Gmail. Those social platforms represent a new and cheaper communication that is rendering traditional phone services obsolete. Interestingly, some cell phone plan providers have partnered with companies like Meta to allow buyers to use the apps without them counting against data usage.

There’s substantial competition in this space. Zambia has three major telecom providers: Airtel (an Indian company), MTN (a South African company), and Zamtel, the state-affiliated provider. All three try appealing to different parts of the market; Airtel is the premium provider, while MTN offers somewhat slower, but cheaper, service, and Zamtel usually is slow in urban areas but has invested more in rural connectivity. Elsewhere in Africa, Britain’s Vodaphone, Spain’s Telephonic, and France’s Orange are major players – it varies by country. 

These companies have gone beyond just telecommunications, offering services like mobile banking, micro-finance and insurance.


The evolution of Africa’s telecom market has opened up millions of people to the world, and has the potential to grant Africans direct access to customers, suppliers, investors, and collaborators worldwide.

But there’s more to be done. Within Africa, there’s much legacy tech, such as the extensive 3G technology, that has been used to build out the network affordably. Modernizing these services and keeping up with the demand for bandwidth has been a huge effort. Continued innovation is key for increasing access and driving down costs – and given the limited capacity of African governments, the private sector will need to continue leading the way.

Cover image is in public domain. 

Graphic Credit: The Market Urbanist.

Scott Beyer is a Catalyst Columnist Fellow on a 1.5-year research project through the Global South for Catalyst’s Market Urbanism Around the World series. He is the owner of Market Urbanism Report, a media company that advances free-market city policy. He is also an urban affairs journalist who writes regular columns for Forbes, Governing Magazine,, and Catalyst. Follow him on Twitter: @marketurbanist.
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