Tracey van Heerden: Innovative Solutions Needed For Africa’s Enduring SIM Card Problem

Telco operators throughout Africa continue to face several challenges around SIM card registration in the wake of new regulations and shifting consumer habits.

In 2022, millions of Nigerian mobile subscribers were barred from making calls following a government directive to disconnect their SIM cards. Telco operators were instructed to disconnect the subscribers after they failed to register and link their SIM cards to the country’s new National Identity Number, a compulsory digital ID that includes biometric data.

In Cameroon, a backlog in the issuing of ID cards has led to several issues, with telcos experiencing challenges with SIM card registration as many of their users wait for the government to provide the IDs needed for registration.

Regulatory scrutiny intensifies

While telco operators are trying to grow their subscriber base, the new regulations puts their businesses at risk of fines and other sanctions.

While some countries have resorted to issuing fines to telcos for failures in network coverage and poor quality service, many countries are taking a hard stance toward telcos that breach their SIM registration regulations.

In 2016, Tanzania issued fines to its six mobile operators for irregularities in selling and recording customer credentials when activating SIM cards. And in 2019, Gambia’s government fined three telcos for failing to comply with SIM card registration regulations.

Leading telcos often find the regulatory environment in Africa challenging, with MTN Group’s Ralph Mupita recently making a public call for “harmonising regulatory developments, particularly in the technology space”.

Compliance is essential

This additional pressure comes at a challenging time for telcos, who are seeking to grow their customer base and expand the provision of non-traditional services – such as financial services and insurance – to the broader population.

There is good reason for the strengthening of regulations by government authorities. Mobile phones are the primary communication tool for most of Africa’s 1.3 billion citizens. Ensuring that governments can identify mobile numbers and find the owner of a specific number – for example, as part of investigations by the local authorities – is an important aspect of national security.

For telcos, the more they know about their customers, the greater the opportunity to offer new products and services that can boost revenue and grow the business. But this all depends on their ability to improve KYC-related activities.

Novel approaches needed 

In the face of growing regulatory pressure and the need for telcos to expand their offerings to customers, new approaches are needed to ease the process of SIM registration.

Experienced service providers in the telco ecosystem are introducing novel solutions to reduce the regulatory load on mobile operators and ensure customers can enjoy the full benefits of telco service innovation.

The use of eSIMs in markets such as Nigeria hold immense promise. A large percentage of the country’s population lives in rural areas and have to travel long distances at great cost to register their SIM at a service centre.

Leveraging new SIM registration apps, customers can now simply download the app, create an account, complete a brief verification process that goes through a back-end integration with government services, and once confirmed, enjoy their mobile access without the fear of incurring penalties.

In more informal settings, the SIM registration app may be used by freelancers that go to communities where physical SIM cards are sold. The freelancer then registers the SIM card and takes a photo and basic information about the subscriber via the app at the point of sale.

SIM registration is an essential component to national safety as well as the adoption of new services offered by telco operators. The key is partnering with providers like Itemate that can relieve some of the regulatory pressure and more easily collect KYC information to ensure telco operators and their customers can enjoy unfettered access to the continent’s growing ecosystem of mobile innovation.

Tracey van Heerden is the Head of Product Development & Operations at Itemate Solutions.

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