Kenya Mobile Communications







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Read our special focus on "Early Adopters" of Mobile Phones In Kenya


Mobile Communications in Kenya

As access to mobile phones and (to a lesser extent) internet expands, development organizations want and need to know how these ICTs are affecting the flow of information and the implementation of development projects. To be sure, these technologies already are being applied in a number of development projects. But better knowledge of the user environment is likely to generate more successful outcomes in many projects.

Mobile phones are becoming widespread in Kenya, with 42 mobile phone subscriptions per 100 people in 2008, compared to an average of 32 per 100 for Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. The level of access has grown rapidly since 2003, when Kenya was on par with the continent’s average, which at that time was five mobile phone subscriptions per 100 people.[1]

Much of the growth has come from the expansion of a single company, Safaricom, which began as part of the state telecommunications monopoly but was partially privatized in 1997 and became a public company in 2002.[2]  Safaricom’s strategy has focused in large part on low-cost, pay-as-you-go plans that are affordable even for households below the poverty line. [3] By contrast, landline telephone coverage remains largely inaccessible, with fewer than one telephone line per 100 people. Investment in ICT has focused instead on bringing mobile and internet access to all parts of the country.

Use Trends

The AudienceScapes survey results corroborate with supply-side data showing broadly based mobile phone use in Kenya, even among relatively isolated or disadvantaged demographic groups and among those who do  not own their own phones (Chart 1). Ninety percent of those surveyed said they had used a mobile phone for some purpose within the last year.

Mobile phone use is also rapidly becoming routine: even for groups with the most limited access, at least half were regular mobile phone users (they said in the survey that they had used a phone within the last week).

Chart 1

However, despite widespread access to phones for basic uses such as voice calls, some of the more innovative uses of mobile phones have been less widely adopted (Table 1).

Table 1

Notably, few respondents said they used phones as a platform for getting formal news updates by SMS. Even those who knew enough about SMS news services to offer an opinion expressed relatively low levels of trust in the news and information such services can provide (Chart 2).

Chart 2

One obvious obstacle to using SMS is illiteracy; although the majority of mobile phone users said that they can read English easily, those who cannot do so were much less likely to say they had used SMS recently. (See Table2; note that Swahili literacy was not measured in the survey, but mobile phone users could be sending/receiving text messages in Swahili as well as English).

Table 2

The use of mobile phones for financial transactions (discussed in greater depth here in the mobile money article) has already become a routine activity (at least once a week) for about one quarter of phone users in Kenya. Overall, 54 percent of those surveyed said they had used a mobile phone for financial transactions at some time; of those who had, virtually all had sent or received money within Kenya, but fewer than 20 percent had paid bills, managed savings, or arranged loans or credits.

Phone sharing is common, meaning that mobile phone use is not restricted to Kenyans who own them or have household access to one. Some people without phones buy SIM cards to use in others' phones, while some borrow phones, with or without paying compensation for the airtime (Chart 3). Half of all phone owners said they lend their phone to other people at least once a month, with most of those lending phones to between one and five people.

Chart 3

Users who do not own a phone said that they typically can borrow a mobile phone from family members or friends. Very few respondents (about 10 percent of people who have used a phone but do not own one, or 3 percent of all respondents) reported being able to borrow phones from local businesses or other people in the community besides friends and family.

Access trends

The ownership rate, at 60 percent of those surveyed nationally, varies substantially by demographic group. Notably, personal phone ownership was claimed by 71 percent of urban respondents versus 55 percent of rural dwellers. The gender breakdown showed 55 percent of women compared to 67 percent of men. Meanwhile, young adults (20 to 35) led ownership rates among age categories (Chart 4).

Chart 4

However, the most dramatic demographic dividing lines emerge among people with different levels of education, which serves as a convenient proxy in the data for income and other socioeconomic status indicators (Chart 5). It is clear that while mobile phones are nearly universal among the educated elite, handsets are clearly not found in the pockets of all Kenyans.

Chart 5

Ninety-three percent of mobile phone owners in the survey said they use Safaricom as a mobile service provider. However, many Kenyans listed more than one provider, likely reflecting the common practice of using multiple SIM cards to take advantage of cost differentials among providers on certain types of calls, or varying signal coverage. Thus, the second-most-widely used provider, Zain, was cited by 23 percent of phone owners.

Mobile phone ownership in Kenya is a fairly recent but rapidly evolving phenomenon; three quarters of owners surveyed said they purchased their first phone within the last five years (Chart 6). The unique characteristics of mobile phone “early adopters”—those who purchased their first phone more than five years ago—are presented at the end of this section. In comparison to later adopters, this group tends to have stronger representation among males, those 30 to 49, the better educated, the wealthier and urbanites.

Chart 6

For the 10 percent of those surveyed who are still not using mobile phones, the most commonly cited reasons were not owning or having access to a phone. About one quarter of nonusers reported that one reason they do not use mobile phones is that phones are too expensive. Few respondents mentioned not needing a phone, not having a cellular signal where they live, having nowhere to charge a mobile phone battery or finding calling credits too expensive—issues that may become bigger obstacles once the ownership and access hurdles are cleared.

Logically, respondents who own a phone tend to use every phone function more intensively than those who rely on others' phones (Chart 7), if only because phone owners have ready access to a phone. It may also be the case that those owning only SIM cards do not have the same privileges as phone owners to access various types of services other than calling. That said, the extent of the owner/non-owner behavior gap has important implications for development projects that depend on the use of mobile applications. Substantial differences in use trends indicate that ownership (rather than access of any kind) may be a more appropriate measure of the real development impact of cell phones. This suggests that expanding phone ownership may merit more emphasis than merely expanding access through community phone programs or other collective means.

Chart 7

Charts 8 through 12 display responses to various opinion questions about mobile phones and their use. While respondents gave mobiles high marks for ease of use and their utility in conducting business, price appeared to be a concern, as did the ability to fix a phone when it does not function properly. There were also differences of opinion about whether it is possible to access a signal wherever one is needed.

Chart 8 

Chart 9

Chart 10

Chart 11

Chart 12

The implication is that development initiatives based on mobile phones should account for possible constraints imposed by the expense of owning one, weak phone signals in some locations and the challenge of fixing broken phones. For example, if a project is under way in Kenya's Eastern region, where mobile phone ownership rates are relatively low, implementers need to know that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the extent of cellular reception (Charts 13 and 14). It may be necessary to overcome this technological hurdle first before making significant headway on a mobile-based project. Curiously, more than half of those surveyed in Nairobi had concerns of some kind about being able to access a phone signal, even though the capital should be a place where signals are relatively strong. Respondents might have been thinking of times when they travel outside the capital and cannot receive reception.

Chart 13

Chart 14

                                                  Read our special focus on "Early Adopters" of Mobile Phones 


[1] World Development Indicators. The World Bank Group, 2009.
[2] “Our Heritage,” Safaricom: About Us.
[3]“Africa calling,” Economist; 6/7/2008, Vol. 387 Issue 8583, p. 78.