UK mobile data has a first-world problem

Unilever, PepsiCo and others are investing in mobile marketing for the developing world, but the UK’s backward approach to mobile data will start to hold brands back.


I’ve just come back from spending Christmas in Rwanda. No really, I have, and I’m not just bragging; there’s a point to this and it relates to mobile data.

Last summer the Rwandan government announced that it aims to make 4G mobile internet available to 95 per cent of citizens within three years. It is also in the process of rolling out free public Wi-Fi hotspots nationwide, starting with the capital, Kigali.

This might sound surprising to Marketing Week readers, most of whom probably know little about ‘the land of a thousand hills’ beyond the genocide that began 20 years ago this April. But in Kigali, aside from Primus lager, you’d be hard-pushed to find an outdoor ad that isn’t for one of the three main mobile networks – MTN, Tigo or Airtel.

Now, I’m not going to claim Rwanda is an economic powerhouse – the average income is only around $600 a year and in my experience internet commerce remains a rarity for now – but its GDP is growing at around 8 per cent a year. What Rwandan businesses lack in efficient infrastructure and marketing nous, they’re attempting to make up for in mobility.

Consumer mobile adoption is at nearly two-thirds and almost every company, trader, hotel or restaurant I came into contact with on my trip had one thing in common – their mobile phone was their most essential business tool. It’s not uncommon to leave a food order with the hotel restaurant, then go back to your room and wait for a call on your mobile once it’s ready (you can be sitting at the table a long time otherwise).

Rwandan businesses aren’t digital natives but they might be something even more valuable – mobile natives – which will be of immense benefit when 4G eventually becomes ubiquitous. Compare and contrast to the UK, where 4G is a distant, expensive dream for most mobile users. If it exists at all in this country, fast, reliable mobile data is something for which you pay a premium. So is public Wi-Fi, come to think of it.

It would be tempting to overstate the technological advancement of what is still without doubt a developing country – Rwanda’s internet penetration is still low today, and most mobiles are feature phones rather than smart phones. But it reflects the mobile-first priorities of many territories outside the West.

In recent months, Unilever, PepsiCo, SABMiller and agriculture company Syngenta have all signalled their intention to target mobile consumers and micro-businesses in the developing world with investments in Dublin-based Brandtone, a fast-growing marketing specialist in that area. Syngenta’s head of business development Robert Berendes yesterday said the company wants to reach “20 million smallholder farmers to help them increase their farming productivity by 50 per cent”, focusing on mobile users in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Telcos in the UK need to start making the same level of commitment to 4G mobile connectivity as much smaller countries are now doing. If they can’t afford it, the government needs to help, because it’s crucial to the national interest.

Otherwise, for all their sophistication in ecommerce, British brands will miss out on the sales and marketing opportunities that developing countries will open up by making the mobile internet available to everyone, all the time.

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