A new State of Mobile Data report by IT firm Nendo says applications may be free to register, access and use, but the hidden cost in megabytes used to download them and the data consumed during sessions and in the background discourages users.
“This lack of clarity may be what spurs visits to a cybercafe, where a person is prepared to pay for a mobile app like WhatsApp to be installed on their smartphone,” says the report.
Mobile data is a precious commodity in an economy that grows more and more digital. This is evidenced by downloads of lite applications as well as the popularity of apps such as Xender, which allow for peer-to-peer file sharing without the use of mobile internet. In Kenya, Xender was downloaded over 1.2 million times in 2018.
Many global technology firms such as Facebook and Google have introduced lite applications into the Kenyan market in order to save on users’ mobile internet costs.
Applications such as Messenger Lite, Google Go, Twitter Lite, Maps Go and YouTube Go help save customer data, storage space and battery life.
“This is going to count for somebody who pays 10 or 20 shillings to charge their phone everyday to get an additional hour just because they switched on the apps,” says Nendo founder Mark Kaigwa.
In Kenya, 43 per cent of mobile phone owners use smartphones. These gadgets seek internet connectivity and drain a user’s mobile data bundles or raw airtime not just through apps users initiate, but also through background activity such as location signals as well as fetching email and online messages.
“If you have a gigabyte, the chances are these smartphones will consume that faster than we expected. Uninstalling all the other apps and installing these lite apps will mean people will use less bundles, save space and have better battery life,” says Mr Kaigwa.
Studies by Internet.org and the Economist Intelligence Unit show that Kenya has high mobile data affordability compared with her East African neighbours, stating the price of 500MB as two per cent of monthly Gross National Income per capita compared with the UN’s threshold of affordability of five per cent of average monthly income.
However, a new report by Nendo says this analysis risks overlooking low-income earners in Kenya, saying; “The challenge of the macroeconomic view is it doesn’t cater to the understanding of whether the bottom 20 per cent do have access to the 1 GB bundles and whether they consider them affordable.”
Many Kenyans use data bundles to access mobile internet. Out-of-bundle rates per megabyte are Sh2 for Telkom, Sh3 for Faiba, Sh4 for Safaricom and a significantly higher Sh8 for Airtel, according to the Nendo report.
With Sh5, a Kenyan can buy a bundle comprising 7MBs of internet and seven text messages from Safaricom and Equitel, 8MBs from Airtel and 24-hour WhatsApp Access from Telkom.
Many Kenyans download applications when they need them, use and delete in order to recover the storage occupied as well as to reduce the amount of background data used and hence their expenses. Among the most popular are those for mobile cash borrowing.
Studies also show that some Kenyans keep off their smartphones or certain apps within them in order to save mobile data.
However, these habits are bad for applications that collect data such as your location, sleeping and spending habits, incentivising firms to develop applications that people will retain for longer.
“So what global corporations are doing is they are desperate to have people keep apps on their phones for one critical reason: If I have an app on your phone that gives me unbelievable access to you depending on the contract I have made with you when you were downloading it from the play store, then that is fine” says Mr Kaigwa.
Over 98 per cent of smartphones in Kenya run on Android. Some of the common applications take up huge space in iOS and run on nearly a fifth of this space in Android. The Google application is 245.8MBs on an iPhone, 31MBs on Android and 5.1MBs for the lite version dubbed Google Go.
“500 shillings can buy a couple GBs or can pay your bill or can put food on the table. This could very well end up helping people stay connected for longer and that could be the difference between them and a future job opportunity, keeping in touch with their family and being in an emergency and being able to communicate because our phones are all that to us and more,” says Mr Kaigwa.
Even among urban Kenyans, many will wait to get to the office to perform tasks that require heavy data.
“Connecting low-income, first-time smartphone users is a challenge that goes beyond affording the device. Some users are cautious about downloading apps directly from the Google Play Store, perhaps because of the cost, in data bundles, of doing so,” says the Nendo report
“There are Kenyans paying Sh50 to install WhatsApp. That sounds bewildering in the capital but that just shows you we aren’t there yet,” says Mr Kaigwa.