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Mobile penetration myths

Monday September 6 2010


The credibility of figures for mobile phone subscription in the country – currently estimated at 20.3 million – has been thrown in doubt by the SIM card registration.

When the final figures of the exercise, which concluded on August 31 after a one-month extension are released, are released they will giving a more credible level of mobile phone penetration, which could be much lower than widely believed.

It is evident that many mobile phone users have multiple lines, and in most instances mobile phone operators exaggerate figures to boost their image, including even dead or inactive numbers in their tally.

Early this year, Telkom Kenya said it had nearly two million subscribers on its Orange mobile network, while Zain put its figure at more than three million. However, initial figures from the Communications Commission of Kenya on the SIM card registration show a different picture.

Last week, Telkom Kenya chief executive officer Mickael Ghossein said the country could have even 90 million SIM cards, but he doesn’t think Kenya has more than 20 million subscribers. “Ask (communication PS Bitange) Ndemo how many lines he has. What I know is that he has Orange, Safaricom and Zain. Do operators count him as one or three?” Mr Ghossein says.

Official statistics from CCK put penetration at close to 50 per cent, which places Kenya among countries with the highest cellphone usage in Africa. Analysts, including the industry regulator, now say the numbers could be overstated.


Kenya being a dual-SIM market (where over half the subscribers own two or more lines), counting each SIM card bought could be misleading. As at July 27, Safaricom had 16.24 million subscribers, Zain 1.89 while Orange had 552,294 and Yu 1.49 million.

Thanks to the ongoing mobile price war, Zain’s numbers has gone up to 2.08 million as at August 25. Mr Charles Njoroge, CCK director-general, says SIM card registration will verify the level of mobile phone penetration in the country. For Mr Njoroge, this will help the regulator get the near actual number that operators boast about.

CCK gets its numbers from the operators, but they count both active and dormant lines. According to its statistics, and based on operator returns as at August 25, about 15.3 millions lines had been registered out of the estimated 20.3 million, representing 75 per cent.

Out of the 2.08 million subscribers that were on Zain by August 25, about 1.39 million had registered, which represents a 67 per cent success rate. The industry’s fourth operator Essar Telecom Kenya Ltd which trades as Yu had registered about 445,000 from a total of 1.5 million, returning the lowest rate of registration of 30 per cent.

Telkom Kenya’s Orange had registered about 250,000 users out of half a million, which is 50 per cent. Market leader in subscriber numbers and revenue, Safaricom Ltd, with 16.2 million subscribers had registered 13.2 million lines, giving 81 per cent.

Even Information and Communications PS Dr Bitange Ndemo believes Kenya doesn’t have more than 20 million subscribers. “You might find that we have almost registered all, because of multiple lines,” Dr Ndemo says.

Those who will not have registered by the 15th of this month will have their lines disconnected and in terms of numbers, that would push mobile phone penetration rate below 50 per cent, meaning more room for growth.

South Africa, Cameroon, Tanzania and Nigeria have also carried out SIM card registrations. In the South African case, one operator, Vodacom lost at least one million subscribers – that is, one million casual users who were disconnected.

Mr Francis Hook, the regional manager for IDC East Africa, says the migratory users who have three SIM cards in their purses/wallets and one in their handset have been compelled to decide who is their “true love” or register all lines.