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Why USSD applications are still popular in South Africa

(Image credit: Leila Stein)

Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) is a communications protocol still widely used in countries across Africa. 

This phenomenon is not seen in many other countries or continents as most have adopted smartphone applications as a replacement for this more simple protocol. 

In South Africa it is still used to complete functions no matter what a persons socio-economic status or smartphone access is. Functions like accessing mobile network services, simple banking and contacting government is done through USSD rather than smartphone apps. 

More recently, the South African government in partnership with GovChat and Praekelt, set up COVIDConnect - a service which allows citizens to find out if they have COVID-19 and receive medical advice. 

Although the government also provides this service through a WhatsApp bot, the inclusion of the USSD option speaks to the preferred use of this older process. 

What is USSD 

Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) is a Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) protocol that has been around since the 1990s. 

It works by sending a request, in the form of a code like *100# ,from a phone to the USSD gateway  (telecom network) to the USSD application, which sends back a response based on the specific request. The user can then respond to these prompts by inputting numbers which request specific responses regarding more detailed queries. 

This is done over the mobile network as the code is sent directly to a network's computer dedicated to USSD that will send this information back and forth. 

Since it has simple functionality it works easily on a feature phone, and even one with a black and white screen, as most USSD applications are formatted to be as simple and monochrome as possible. 

It only requires a network connection and, when not free, uses a fraction of a cent, unlike an SMS which is more expensive. It also doesn't require an internet connection or space on the phone as it doesn't need to be downloaded. 

South Africa, smartphones and internet connection

South Africa has really good smartphone penetration, especially for Africa but this doesn't reflect total mobile use in the country. 

According to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) State of the ICT Sector in South Africa 2020 report, smartphone penetration for 2019 is up to 91.2%, a significant jump from 2018's 81.7%.

However, this data doesn't differentiate smartphones per user. So this 91% doesn't mean that 90% of South Africans have a smartphone as some likely have more than one, some only have feature phones and some (though a very small percentage) have none. 

The report also states that South Africa's internet coverage has improved. The report  explains how national coverage for 3G has risen to 99.7% and 4G/LTE is up to 92.8%.

These stats speak to the interest and uptake of applications like WhatsApp, which is considered South Africa's favourite messaging platform and most popular app overall. 

Statista reported that as of February 2020, 58% of South African mobile phone owners use the app. 

So why still use USSD with so much smartphone adoption, internet coverage and app use? The answers appear to be around data, its simplicity and accessibility. 

The data issue 

South Africa's fight on data costs is extensive and ongoing. 

UK company released a report ranking South Africa 148 out of 228 countries for the costly price of mobile bandwidth. While other countries like New Zealand and Canada have more expensive data, on average South Africa ranks among the most expensive for data in Africa. 

These expensive prices are a problem for many South Africans who can't afford roughly R99 for 1GB. 

Although there are cheaper 30-day WhatsApp bundles, which make using apps more affordable, if given the choice between completing an action by spending data or getting what you need for free or near to free, most would choose free. 

Simplicity and Accessibility 

The simplicity of the USSD platform is a major drawcard. It is quick and efficient to look up your data balance with a simple code rather than wading through the service providers app. 

Eldrid Jordaan, CEO of GovChat, explained that the COVIDConnect services are offered over both WhatsApp and through USSD, and USSD is the more popular of the two. 

According to Jordaan, Praekelt who run the screening service part of COVIDConnect, said at least 60% of the interactions through this service are through USSD. 

"Even though the platforms we are building are cross-platform, USSD is still the most used," said Jordaan. 

As a result, it is likely that USSD is here to stay. The popular platform has been built upon since its first iteration and will become more powerful as its uses expand. Already the introduction of chatbots within USSD are expanding its purpose to a possible two-way communication space rather than just an input-output process. 

Leila Stein

Leila Stein is an experienced multimedia journalist and content producer with a special interest in data journalism. she is skilled in news writing, editing, online writing and multimedia content production and have a Bachelor of Journalism  from Rhodes University and an Honours in Historical Studies from University of Cape Town.