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Kenya claims Africa's debut MVNO 5G connectivity network

While it is Africa's first MVNO-backed 5G service, it is the third to make the fifth-gen entry in the Kenyan market

Kenya claims Africa's debut MVNO 5G connectivity network
With 7 million subscriptions, Africa accounts for 5.4% of the global MVNO market

Equitel, the mobile virtual network operator of Finserve, a fully-owned subsidiary of Kenya's largest retail bank Equity Group Holdings (formerly Equity Bank Group), in collaboration with Airtel, has launched its fifth-generation connectivity service. 

It is the first time an MNVO is treading the 5G path, not only in the country but in Africa at large. The service is now live in more than 370 locations across the East African nation, reaching places like Nairobi, Mombasa, Kakamega, Siaya, Eldoret, Nakuru, and Bungoma.

This also marks the third 5G network roll-out in the country, following the efforts of Safaricom in 2021 and Airtel Kenya in 2023. Data from the Communications Authority says the number of 5G users climbed to 509,737 as of September 2023, signifying an increase of 13.3% or 59,943 subscribers.

Per a statement by Equitel, the network will provide faster and more reliable internet connectivity for businesses, densely populated communities, and internet-hungry individuals, helping them partake in activities within the digital economy. 

For some time, predictions have said 5G will catalyze the rise of dedicated MVNOs. The growth potential lies not only with consumers but also at the enterprise level. Ever since the industry reinforced this trend at the MVNOs World Congress 2020, use case specialization has gone up a notch. 

Over the last few years, carriers began focusing on tactical in-house innovation, which has helped them gain more users worldwide, as MVNOs become one of the first choices for users seeking constant connection, diverse internet bundles, and exclusive offerings. 

These 5G use cases rely less on enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) and more on ultra-reliable, low latency communications (URLLC) and machine-learning type communication (MTC).

In Kenya, Equitel has established a household mobile banking brand by offering customers convenient, easily accessible, and affordable financial transactions via several channels. The service is vying for a spot in a mobile money market dominated by Safaricom's M-PESA. 

According to Salman Tariq, VP for Europe, Middle East, and Africa at Optivia, a cloud telecoms firm that has been working in the African telecoms landscape for over a decade, innovation is central to the success of the continent's MVNOs

"Specializing in niche segments, MVNOs are ideally positioned to drive the growth and adoption of connectivity and specialized digital services tailored to specific market needs. Their agility and focus on particular customer segments allow them to innovate and provide services that might not be economically viable for larger MNOs," Tariq said in his 2024 outlook

Africa lays claim to 5.4% of the global MVNO market with 7 million subscriptions. To compare, the continent's total mobile subscriptions represent 12% of the total in the world. Back home, MVNOs account for 0.6% of total subs, compared to 8% in Western Europe and 1.4% in the Middle East. 

Though MVNO subscriptions grew by 4% in 2022, lower than the global 7%, the market is expected to start growing faster from 2023, as operators—essentially banks, retailers, and data-driven telcos—obtain licensing more than ever. 

Kenya, which has a more in-place MVNO regulatory framework, was pioneering the market in Africa with 3 active players as of 2016. Two have sunset their operations, leaving Equitel as the only existing network. South Africa now leads the continent with over a dozen operators. 

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