Zero-rating Mobile Services

An easy win that can significantly boost
socio-economic development

Prepaid data is unaffordable to most South Africans.

Yet, if they had access to the information and services offered on mobile platforms, it would improve their quality of life and grow our economy.

Prepaid data is unaffordable to most South Africans.

Yet, if they had access to the information and services offered on mobile platforms, it would improve their quality of life and grow our economy.

Unlike fixing the education system, we can easily make this happen – if we wanted to.

This is Somdaka Vuyiswa. She lives in a remote area of the Eastern Cape called Amajingqi. As a Nal’ibali Story Sparker (literacy mentor) she runs reading clubs for children who would otherwise have very little opportunity to be exposed to books and be supported to love reading. Via her cell phone, she and everyone else in Amajingqi, can access, a mobile platform developed by the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign to make available a library of children’s stories in various South African languages, as well as other resources for adults who are committed to cultivating literacy skills in children – skills that are critical for building a foundation for learning.


In 2013, DGMT commissioned a study to look at ways to reduce the cost of mobile data in South Africa in order to contribute to socio-economic development. Subsequently, DGMT has pursued a strategy in which the cost of mobile services provided by public benefit organisations (PBOs) is zero rated, with costs offset by the statutory obligations of mobile network operators (MNOs). These obligations include the funding of socio-economic development and universal service obligations.

Typically, zero-rating is the process of providing subsidised digital content and/or access to the Internet at no charge to the user. One of its key objectives is to increase access to online information and resources for users who cannot afford the costs of data.[1]Romanosky, J. & Chetty, M. 2018. Understanding the Use and Impact of the Zero-Rated Free Basics Platform in South Africa. Princeton University: Access here.

Read and download DGMT’s submission and presentation to the Data Services Market Inquiry public hearings (17-19 October 2018) here: Submission; Presentation.


Examples of Mobile Opportunities

CareUp Mobile Education App


78% of Grade 4 children in South Africa are unable to read at expected levels of competency.[2]Mullis, I. V. S., Martin, M. O., Foy, P., & Hooper, M. 2017. PIRLS 2016 International Results in Reading. Retrieved from Boston College, TIMSS & PIRLS International Study. Access it here. Participation in quality early learning activities during the pre-school years significantly enhances the ability of children to benefit from schooling. The best outcomes are achieved when the work of the pre-school teacher is reinforced in the home environment through meaningful interactions between caregiver and child.

To address this need Innovation Edge, The Reach Trust, and the Western Cape Department of Social Development (DSD) created CareUp, an Android app and mobi site, which sends regular messages and provides free learning resources to parents and teachers. The resources are made up of audio files offering information on things to do with the child, games, stories and inspirational messages. The CareUp app and its content have been designed to use very little data, and to take into account the everyday reality of parents and children living in marginalised communities.

Messages to parents and messages to practitioners are co-ordinated so that learning in the home reinforces the learning that takes place at the ECD centre. Read more about CareUp here.

JobStarter Mobile Education App


Over 30% of young South Africans between the ages of 15‐24 are not in employment, education or training. When taking an extended view of youth (25‐34 year olds), 46% of these young people fall into the same category. This equates to approximately 7.65 million young people being out of work, education or training opportunities.

JobStarter is a mobile learning and career information platform created to address some of the structural barriers that limit the connections between young people and post-school work and/or further education opportunities. These include:

  1. A lack of quality, reliable and easy-to-navigate information on the choices and actions young people can take when looking to connect to opportunities;
  2. The difficulty young people have in accessing work-readiness learning programmes;
  3. Mechanisms for opportunity providers to easily source appropriate candidates among the pool of young people looking for work or work experience opportunities.

Read more about JobStarter here.


There are few strategies that could bring about a quick and radical shake-up of the social and economic landscape in South Africa. However, one of these is mobile technology. The Census 2011 found that 89% of homes have at least one cellphone in working order, compared to 21% with access to computers and 15% with access to a landline. And yet, the majority of people in South Africa do not have any access to the Internet. The reason is not a lack of infrastructure – there are cellphone towers across the country – but rather the price of connection.

The cost of 1GB of prepaid data is currently ±R150 per GB on most networks. Even if this is divided by three and reduced to R50/1GB, this remains too expensive for most South Africans. Over 55% of South Africans (30 million people) live in poverty, surviving on less than R992 per month.[3]Poverty Trends in South Africa: An examination of absolute poverty between 2006 & 2015. Media release issued on 22 August 2017. Access it here. Currently, they would have to spend up to 15% of their income to buy a modest 1GB of mobile data.

Until mobile data prices fall to below R15/GB – regardless of the amount of data that is bought at a time – mobile data will remain unaffordable to the majority of South Africans; national development will remain hamstrung; and the digital divide is unlikely to be closed.

Read more:


Examples of Mobile Opportunities

FunDza Mobile Education App


The FunDza Literacy Trust is dedicated to improving literacy among teens and young adults. Reading and writing is the fundamental pillar of education. Education is the foundation of a healthy, stable, growth-oriented society.

By 2018, FunDza’s mobi library – – had almost 9 million regular users. Each week, FunDza commissions a Southern African writer to produce a 7-chapter short story. Each chapter is released in a serialised format, with a new chapter appearing each day to draw readers in – and hook them into coming back for more. FunDza also re-publishes books, short stories and inspirational articles or people profiles, provided by third party publishers or writers. All this content is freely accessible to users via their cell phones. This mobile platform offers more than content though; FunDza also hosts networks of young readers and works with them to get their poetry, prose or plays edited and showcased on the platform.

Read more about FunDza on their website and reports, or you can read a DGMT-published learning brief by FunDza here (Learning brief title: Evaluating a technology-driven reading for pleasure programme).

MathsUP Mobile Education App


Every year, fewer than 12 000 South African learners (±1% of Matrics) achieve more than 70% in Maths and Science – a level generally considered necessary to be selected for degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering or Medicine.

A recent report from the University of Stellenbosch revealed that 40% of Grade 4 children are functionally innumerate. These problems largely arise because of a failure to lay good mathematics and literacy foundations during the formative years of a child’s life.

MathsUp provides teachers with bite-size Maths content that is delivered Monday to Friday, through message reminders, and which guides them through the Grade R year. The app includes activities that encourage problem solving and investigation, Maths vocabulary, and Maths questions, as well as providing additional information for further exploration of Maths concepts. The app also provides tips for teachers on how to involve parents in their children’s Maths learning at home.

Read more about MathsUp here.


DGMT proposes that the zero-rating of mobile services and content, offered by registered PBOs and government entities promoting socio-economic development, should be managed through a Social Innovation Register (SIR). The SIR would allow approved PBOs to provide users with free mobile data access to their online services.

Ideally, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the Department Of Telecommunications & Postal Services (DTPS) would champion such an initiative through the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (USAASA). This would include encouraging Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) to voluntarily support the establishment and functioning of the SIR.  

Further support would be required from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to ensure the cost of providing zero-rated services is categorised as Socio-Economic Development spend, whilst the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) would be needed to update the Universal Service and Access Obligations (USAO) of the MNOs, and to provide appropriate regulation going forward. Ultimately, once successfully piloted, the SIR is envisioned to be funded by USAASA.

DGMT is currently piloting the establishment of an SIR to demonstrate the processes and systems required to make this work, as well the potential impact it could have.

Zero mobile rates diagram

Who gains from this zero-rating model?

Marginalised South Africans would have to access information that could improve health, education and learning outcomes, as well as safety, early childhood development, job prospects and so forth.

For Government it would represent a vast improvement in access to public benefit services offered on mobile platforms to millions of South Africans, spurring on socio-economic development; encouraging significant innovation (especially within the ICT4D space); and accelerating wider adoption of the internet in South Africa – improved access to the Internet has been shown to spur economic growth.

Read more: In 2018 Julianne Romanosky and Dr. Marshini Chetty released the results of a study on the utilisation of Facebook’s Free Basics (i.e. zero-rating) platform that they conducted in South Africa. Read the full study here or for a summary of the methodology and findings, click here. 

In short, the study found that offering free-rated content does shape the Internet use and choices of users, with the biggest impact being on lowest income users. Users found the concept of zero-rating confusing, which complicates the process of managing mobile Internet costs, indicating that the interface design of zero-rating platforms needs to be simple and intuitive.  


Examples of Mobile Opportunities

Nal’ibali Mobile Education App


Nal’ibali (isiXhosa for ‘here’s the story’) is a national reading-for-enjoyment campaign designed to spark children’s potential through storytelling and reading. A well-established culture of reading can be a game-changer for education in South Africa. Literacy skills are a strong predictor of future academic success in all subjects – and children who regularly read and hear engaging stories, in languages they understand, are well equipped and motivated to learn to read and write. Nal’ibali is working to support parents, teachers, caregivers and communities to root reading and writing habits in children’s daily lives. Read more about Nal’ibali here. is a resource hub where users can access Nal’ibali newspaper supplements, stories and story cards, podcasts of radio stories, recommended reading lists, as well as multilingual tip-sheets that inspire and support reading for enjoyment in children of all ages. Online resources can be downloaded and/or printed for easy use.  Access here.

Wordworks Mobile Education App


There are just over 6 million 0-6 year olds in South Africa. The first 1 000 days of life open a critical window of opportunity. During this period, children’s brains form thousands of neural connections every second. The connections made by the brain during this time are the building blocks for their future. Homes are therefore critically important places for supporting early learning. Currently, there are limited opportunities for parents and caregivers to get information on early learning and stimulation.

The Wordworks app equips parents, caregivers and educators of children aged 0-5 years with the skills to support early learning in simple, enjoyable, accessible and cost-effective ways. The app takes users on a fun journey and provides ideas about how to talk, play, sing and share books with babies and young children. Content includes information on how to support young children’s drawing and early writing skills, and tips on how to enjoy maths through everyday activities. Wordworks also offers motivational messages and suggestions for positive phrases to say to young children. Read more about the Wordworks app here.


The institutions that provide policy and implementation support to zero-rating have been in a state of flux over the last five years. This has made it difficult to make much headway. However, in 2014, DGMT was able to contribute to the ICT Policy Review Process.

In 2018, two network operators committed to the zero-rating of mobile services provided by PBOs. DGMT is now in the process of setting up a Social Innovation Register that will vet, oversee and monitor PBOs seeking to zero-rate their online content, as well as to report on the impact of zero-rated access.

We are hoping that by the end of 2018, we will have piloted the zero-rating of 20-30 different PBO websites/mobi sites.

On the 17th of October 2018, DGMT presented its submission to the Public Hearings for the Data Services Market Enquiry.

This is a project with significant potential – but it requires unlikely partnerships (between network operators and public benefit organisations) that are not always easy to get off the ground.


With almost all homes in SA having access to mobile phones, mobile technology is a convenient way to reach South Africans. In this learning brief, we share the best advice of organisations with experience developing mobile platforms for social change.

Read our most recent Learning Brief here.

Hands-on experience learning - Mobile Technology

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