The importance of USSD mobile use in Africa

The ongoing relationship between Retail and Technology
November 3, 2018
The Future of Work
November 3, 2018

On a continent where the mobile market is primarily prepaid, Unstructured Supplementary Service Data or USSD is the mobile operator’s preferred method of communication for internal applications like data bundles, top-ups, balance checks and promotions.

USSD is a GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication) communication technology that co-ordinates the message exchange between a mobile device and the network’s operating computer, or main application programme.
When the European Telecommunications Standards Institute released the standards document for GSM in 1997, it covered a niche protocol which governed technical communications between a mobile operator’s network and the subscriber’s handset. As the mobile industry started taking off, it became necessary for an aiding protocol to help devices that queried the mobile operator’s network. And so USSD was born to ‘supplement’ existing GSM standards.

Why is this protocol, while not extraordinary, so powerful on the African continent? Answer: It works on every phone - every phone that suppports GSM which is most phones on the continent as you need a SIM card for your device.
The simplicity of USSD technology means that it doesn’t demand the processing hardware of native platforms like Android and iOS. This makes it an attractive and far more affordable option for a mobile application use. So while the high level of internet penetration in the ‘developed world’ has deterred the strong use case for USSD, Africa’s unique scenario demands the technology.

Jumia’s 2017 Mobile Trend Report showed that there are currently 960 million mobile subscriptions across Africa and Internet penetration has 216 million Internet users. So while there is 18% Internet penetration, there is 80% mobile penetration.
Many will argue that smartphone penetration is on the rise. But the trusty smartphone is still most African’s first phone; this exacerbated by low cost Chinese manufacturers flooding the market. The market share of feature phones rose to 61% in 2017 from 55.4% in 2016, while market share for smartphones fell to 39% from 44.6%, according to data provided by IDC.

Unique USSD Applications

In recent developments, the Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) ministry unveiled Govchat to enable communication between councillors and citizens in their communities. Initially launched as web based tool, community members can access the platform via Whatsapp and USSD.
In 2015, the South African National Deapartment of Health launched MomConnect. The mobile service allowed a USSD-based registration system to enroll every pregnant woman in the country into a national pregnancy register, using her ID number as a unique identifier.
Taxi hailing app Little Cab in Kenya targeted non-smartphone users with a USSD code programme for taxi bookings. Powered by operator Safaricom, the app also allowed users to save on data bundles whilst hailing a taxi. Little Cab customers dialled *826# from their mobile phone to request for a cab.

USSD’s business case for your business?



Looking at the sheer number of people using mobile banking via USSD on the continent, you will be moved to understand the vital use of USSD to facilitate transactional behaviour with African users.

M-Pesa in Tanzania works with USSD menus. Mlouma is a platform that connects Senegalese farmers and buyers through USSD.


The Shoprite Money account which launched earlier this year, operates virtually with a USSD string via the user’s cellphone. Users will have access to this service once they register for a Shoprite Money account at any Shoprite store.

Reasons for USSD transactions:

It’s free for your clients to use, and highly cost-effective for you to implement and run.
It is highly interactive
The rapid exchange of data makes it up to 7 times faster than SMS
No internet connection or data is needed
USSD codes works across all cellular networks
Can be easily customised to suit your business needs
The cost of using USSD technology is approximately 20 cents per 20 seconds with sessions capped at 3 minutes which means that if a user takes too long to respond, their session will automatically be timed out which means you never spend more than necessary.

Want to continue the conversation on USSD technology and potential for your business? Leave your questions in the comments below. Or you can email us too on talk@sociallyacceptable.co.za

Ciao for now.

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