As the country continues to deepen digital service provision, telecom operators need to close the gaps in access to affordable smartphones and digital illiteracy.
The biggest segment of the population is not using the Internet and smartphones largely due to limited access to smartphones and high rates of digital illiteracy.
More than 75 percent of MTN Rwanda customers never use data, despite the operator having invested heavily in its network upgrade, while other data providers like Ktrn which has extended its 4G Internet to up to 96 percent of the country, is also not deriving value due to low adoption.
“More than 75 percent of our customers never use data, they don't know the benefits of using data and have never used a single app,” said Bart Hofker, the CEO of MTN Rwanda.
A few years ago the government came up with a program to work with smartphone dealers to subsidize the cost of smart devices to increase usage, targeting to reduce the cost to less than Rwf69,045, while also giving the dealers tax incentives on smartphone imports.
It also tried to engage banks with a proposal to entice them into buying smart devices for people payable in 12 months installments, however, these never materialized.
Although mobile penetration in Rwanda has been growing over the past five years, standing at 81 percent by 2018, most of the devices are feature phones, which cannot perform Internet-based digital functions.
In 2015, the government launched Irembo, a digital portal through which all government services are now offered, and by 2018 up to 5,932,314 transactions or nearly half of Rwanda’s 12 million population had sought services on the portal.
Efforts by the government to fast track access to affordable smartphones is yet to generate meaningful results, and smartphones remain expensive especially for the poor.
The obstacles in the market have forced telecom operators to forge partnerships among themselves as they seek to expand their client base and stay afloat.