Mobile Technology in Africa: a comparative view between Kenya and South Africa

A recent GSMA report stated that Africa is currently the second biggest market for mobile in the world. This means that there is huge innovation potential in terms of mobile technology application development, as well as creating solutions (think access to information, ability to transfer money, creating jobs) for the more than 649 million handset owners on the continent.

As part of my research I’ve been investigating the mobile tech space in South Africa and Kenya as well as the developer communities in both countries. It is interesting to see how many differences (and surprising similarities) there are in terms of mobile usage and user statistics.

This infographic by Ivan Colic was published in July this year and gives a thought-provoking overview of smartphone vs feature phone penetration in Africa.

Mobile phones in Africa. Image by @ivanisawesome
Country comparison
In a report published in Voice of America earlier this year, the two countries were compared as follow: “South Africa, which has a more developed infrastructure, topped the continent in terms mobile broadband penetration. The group singled out Kenya as the leader of mobile money transfers and what’s termed ‘m-banking’. It said 8.5 million users in Kenya use mobile devices to help manage their finances.” Kenya’s M-Pesa is a prime example of an innovative solution that was developed in Nairobi to solve people’s problem to transfer money to friends and relatives living in rural areas.


The table below illustrates the differences and similarities between these two countries in Sub-Saharan Africa in terms of internet and mobile penetration.

Comparison between Kenya and South Africa. Image by @mariskaza

Developer communities
The (software) developer community in Kenya is in its infant stages, with lots of young computer science students obtaining their degrees from European universities and then returning home to re-invest their skills in the country. The opposite is mostly true for developers in South Africa, where engineers obtain their degrees here, and then move overseas to gain international experience and work for huge corporations in America and Europe.

What struck me while I was chatting to developers in Nairobi, is that they’re much more “solution for the people” focused as opposed to developing cool technologies that are sometimes immitating international apps, and not necesarily apps that will improve people’s lives. It is interesting to note that there are currently 8 million smartphones (and growing at a phenomenal rate) in South Africa, with a much smaller percentage in Kenya. Developers in Kenya still develop mostly for feature phones. That’s why a platform like Mocality is agnostic to the client platform. Mocality is a business listing app that launched in Nairobi early in 2010 and already have 67,000 users [update: Mocality has 67,000 member businesseslisted on the directory]. According to Mocality CEO, Stefan Magdalinski, “This is the Mocality reality: RIM, Android, Apple are 2% of usage.” [update: According to Mocality CEO, Stefan Magdalinski, “Mocality Kenya now (at November 2011) sees about 21% of our traffic from Android devices.”]

The biggest concentration of software (and by implication, mobile app) developers, are based in Nairobi. One could compare this ecosystem with the developer community in Silicon Cape. Most developers in Kenya, however, spend time at the iHub. The iHub is Nairobi’s Innovation Hub for the technology community and is an open space for the technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in the area.

I had the privilege to meet the founder of the iHub, Erik Hersman, in Nairobi and I recently asked him (via twitter and e-mail) what he thought the differences are between Kenya and South Arica in terms of the mobile ecosystem.

“I’d say the biggest difference that I can point out is that it seems like there are more products made for a global market coming out of South Africa, as opposed to more regionalized products coming out of Kenya.  The focus is different, not better or worse, just different.  South Africa tends to have more restrictive telecom and banking regulations, which I think have lead to less innovation in these spaces.  Kenya has had a much friendlier regulator, allowing innovative mobile money products to develop. South Africa has more money and better infrastructure than Kenya, more developers too, yet somehow Kenya seems to have a better position on innovation in the mobile space (though not the web).”

Looking at the future of mobile in Africa, I asked Erik what kind of technology he’d invest in: “I’d double down on mobile money solutions, both on the peer-to-peer and merchant-to-consumer sides. This is what the users want, so the products will find their way to market.”

Most developers in Nairobi are under the impression that we are light years ahead of them in South Africa in terms of our technological innovations. I would go as far as to say that yes, we are privileged in terms of technological experience, but that we will definitely need to adopt Kenyan developers’ outlook on building solution-oriented apps for the more than 80% of people who still rely on feature phones to communicate, share and transact.

*This article was updated on 13 December 2011 with more accurate statistics on Mocality in Kenya.

Image sources:

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  1. 1
    san on Wednesday 07 December, 15:45 PM #

    I like this blog post. its very useful

    • 2
      Mariska du Preez on Thursday 08 December, 08:51 AM #

      Glad you found it useful, San!

  2. 3
    Duma on Thursday 08 December, 11:13 AM #

    Very interesting read indeed. Would be nice to get stats on other African stats as well.

  3. 5
    Tanvi on Sunday 11 December, 16:56 PM #

    Very impressive! Interesting read!

    • 6
      Mariska du Preez on Monday 12 December, 10:17 AM #

      Thanks, Tanvi!

  4. 7
    Technological African on Monday 12 December, 14:26 PM #

    Very good article Mariska, i blogged about it here.

    Thanks for the research you did on the topic, it provided some very good insight.

    • 8
      Mariska du Preez on Monday 12 December, 14:36 PM #

      Thank you, Abou! I am flattered. :)

  5. 9
    DM on Tuesday 13 December, 07:45 AM #

    Check this out as well:

  6. 10
    Stefan Magdalinski on Tuesday 13 December, 10:17 AM #

    Hi Mariska,

    Nice piece, but it suffers from outdated info in a couple of areas. In a market changing as rapidly as Kenya (and to a lesser extent, RSA), you simply cannot quote statistics from articles written 18 months ago as accurate today (in general, I’m wary of any internet stat in Africa that’s more than 3 months old).

    To wit, Mocality Kenya now (at November 2011) sees about 21% of our traffic from Android devices.

    Also a minor clarification, Mocality does not publish user numbers, so I think the 67,000 number you mention is the number of member businesses – this number is now over 150000 in Kenya.

    GM, E-Commerce, Sub-Saharn Africa MIH.

    • 11
      Mariska du Preez on Tuesday 13 December, 10:51 AM #

      Hi Stefan

      Thank you very much for pointing out the correct numbers and congratulations on the great growth Mocality has shown in Kenya!

      I will update the info.

      Kind regards,

  7. 12
    Freshfire on Wednesday 14 December, 05:43 AM #

    Great insight right there Mariska . “Kenyan developers are very “local solutions/socially” oriented while South Africans are more commercially and internationally driven”. Isn’t this a good platform to create home grown solutions?…just wondering.

    • 13
      Mariska du Preez on Wednesday 14 December, 06:54 AM #

      Hi Moses

      Thank you very much for your feedback! I’m not saying either one of the outlooks is the correct one. In Africa it is encouraging to see people focusing on home grown solutions as well, so yes, I think it is indeed a good platform to offer solutions for local people first, and then commercialise internationally.

      I’m very impressed with your site and looking forward to see more stats on mobile phones in Kenya in 2012!

      Kind regards,

  8. 14
    Lauren on Wednesday 14 December, 11:02 AM #

    Great article, super useful overview … looking forward to reading some more on this topic if you have anything else?

  9. 16
    Mariska on Wednesday 19 December, 22:23 PM #

    An additional resource I came across:


  1. Mobile: Comparative View Between Kenya and South Africa. « The Technological African's Blog - December 12, 2011

    [...] like to direct you to this article by Mariska Du Preez titled “Mobile Technology: a comparative view between Kenya and South Africa“. Some hard numbers are given from research on the mobile market in both coutries, as well [...]

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