Cost Of Mobile Data In Zimbabwe: Should We Even Compare?

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This the first of a 3 part series on the cost of mobile broadband in Zimbabwe.

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There is a literal raging debate right now on whether mobile internet in Zimbabwe is the most expensive in the world. Well, the better question to ask is this: Is mobile data expensive in Zimbabwe?

There are 3 distinct considerations to make in order for us to determine whether or not access to the internet is cheap, expensive or fair in Zimbabwe:

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  1. Tariffs compared to other countries: How much does access to the internet cost in Zimbabwe compared to other countries?
  2. Operator viability and margins: How much are operators in Zimbabwe earning per every broadband customer? Are their margins higher or lower than other operators out there? What environmentally specific factors affect them and do these reflect in their pricing?
  3. Affordability: Can Zimbabweans afford access to the internet? How much do Zimbabweans earn? What percentage of their income goes to connectivity and how does that compare to others around the globe?

So should we start with #1?

Of these 3, the least important and more difficult to establish is the first consideration. Pricing comparisons for mobile data are not easy especially if you don’t want to generalise and misleadingly conclude. The recent report by Cable in the UK was disappointing to say the least.

They concluded that Zimbabweans pay USD 75.20 per month without setting foot in the country. They just averaged some 37 different packages. It’s too tedious a task to decode which those 37 packages are. It’s not a useful exercise even. The more important thing to do is to look at how Zimbabweans consume the internet and therefore how much they pay, not merely look at dozens of redundant options.

The science of price comparisons

Averaging a bunch of data plans, some of which have never been bought by anyone does not make sense. This is where comparisons break down. If I am going to do a comparison in pricing between Zimbabwe and South Africa for example, the comparison will be based on how we consume mobile data in Zimbabwe and I will look for equivalent packages in South Africa. However, those packages may not have any people buying them in South Africa.

For example my friend in South Africa buys a monthly 1Gig data bundle from Vodacom at R149 which is just above USD10.00. Here in Zimbabwe NetOne charges $20 for 1.5Gb and Econet $35 for the same in a month. This translates to just above USD5.00 and USD9.00 per gig per month respectively when we use the official exchange rate. But I am already converting 1.5Gb into a 1Gb bundle that doesn’t exist.

We have done these kinds of comparisons here on Techzim before but they are dangerous without enough context. It’s either we make consumers very angry or operators very angry. Maybe we should just stop doing these things. Each survey claims to be scientific but is that even possible?

If you remember an EcoBank report late last year, again from the UK stated that 1Gb for a moth costs $25.00 in Zimbabwe. In 2017, Research ICT Africa’s report of 2017 said accessing a gig costs $30.00 per month in Zimbabwe and now Cable says it’s $75.00. I haven’t seen price movement in telecom products in a while, maybe you have.

This is not to say these international organisations will be deliberately lying. The problem is the price of data cannot be assumed from outside the market. They should stop just stating how expensive access is here based on their assumptions. We should also stop declaring ourselves cheaper or more expensive based on our imposed frame of reference.

Let’s skip #1

As a first part to this series I was trying to come up with a price comparison of my own between South Africa and Zimbabwe. I thought I could of course get enough information from down South and be scientific. I was wrong. Comparing Zim and SA was just going to give the same problems I had with the Cable report. The nuances are just too many.

In any case, basing a discussion on pricing based on realities elsewhere may not be the smartest thing to do. Very few industries if any can be directly compared across borders like that. Do we expect such a comparison in the real estate sector for example?

Should we compare and aspire to have the same rentals in Zimbabwe as those in the US or in SA or elsewhere? A fair price is not necessarily based on how much you pay compared to someone on some other corner of the world. A fair price has to be determined within the context of your local market and its unique dynamics.

Those nuances actually matter more than the mere arbitrary price values.

So, we haven’t yet answered whether or not mobile broadband is expensive in Zimbabwe. At least we have established that the answer is not that simple. See you in part 2 but you can attack me in the comments for now.

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