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The rise of the Internet in Africa

The rise of the Internet in Africa

In 2013 Balancing Act carried out a detailed market research study in seven Sub-Saharan countries in the vanguard of adopting the Internet and social media.

The study has four parts – which are available for free as downloads – and looks at how the Internet and social media are changing Africa’s communications and media landscape. Russell Southwood highlights some of the key findings from the study.

The study has three components:

  • Nationally representative face-to-face surveys;
  • A survey of featurephone users; and
  • Qualitative groups to explore issues in depth.

One of the face-to-face surveys covers Northern Nigeria with a regionally representative sample. The seven countries covered are: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the cockpit of change in terms of the global digital divide and changing media and communications use; in little over a decade it has gone from being largely unconnected to the Internet to having millions of people using it.

Because media have been relatively undeveloped—for a host of reasons, including education, income, and lack of access to electricity—the impact of the digital changes have and may continue to be somewhat more dramatic than in countries where traditional media and communications have been much better established.

Some of the key findings of the study are as follows:

Everybody wants a smartphone

All respondents in the face-to-face surveys were most likely to upgrade their phone in the next 12 months. For example, in Ghana 72% of respondents said they would do so. When asked what features they would look for in a new phone, the majority were looking for things found on a smartphone.

For example, in Ghana the results were as follows: Play Music (90%); Access Internet (89%); Play Video (86%); Touch Screen (83%); and Download Apps (77%).

Feature phone users were surveyed because they are much more numerous than smartphone users. Indeed it’s becoming clear that featurephone users want to be smartphone users “when they grow up”. If smartphones go below US$50-75, then this will be a large market.

An Overall Increase in the Number of Devices

Over the last five years, the number of Africans who own or have access to mobile phones, computers, laptops, smartphones and tablets has grown considerably. These both act as media carriers (a mobile with a radio or TV receiver) or a media in their own right (a mobile accessing the Internet and Social Media).

Wider Access to Computers and Laptops

Computer ownership is much more constrained by the cost of the device. Nevertheless, the face-to-face surveys show that there has been an increase in computer use and what is probably a much wider pattern of shared use.

Ownership of desktop computers and laptops is highest in Ghana (18% and 19% respectively) and Senegal (19% each) and lowest in Tanzania (3% and 6% respectively) and Northern Nigeria (6% each). Taking into account sharing, 37-50% of respondents had access to some type of computer in Ghana and Senegal and 14-16% in Tanzania and Northern Nigeria.

Tablets users were almost non-existent amongst face-to-face survey respondents in Northern Nigeria and Tanzania but in Ghana (6%) and Senegal (5%) a significant number of respondents own a tablet of some form, which might also include “phablets” (large screen smartphones).

More media and wider Internet access

The focus group and one-to-one interviewees for this research were asked what had changed most about media and communications in the last five years. Two responses were common to all those who took part: the greater amount of media available and the presence of the Internet.

The two are interconnected as wider media generally drives a wider set of viewpoints and information with the Internet acting as a backstop where people can get information not provided by traditional media or actually restricted by Government.

From the group and one-to-one research this is very much the role it plays in slightly different ways in Ethiopia and Senegal.

Continued Growth in Internet Use

Internet and Social Media will also grow over the next five years. Our predictions for the countries covered in this report in terms of Internet connection ownership is that it will grow to between 10-25% of the population depending on the country.

The majority of Internet use will be on a mobile phone but the level of household broadband connections will continue to grow.

Changing behavior in terms of news and information

Both the feature phone user research and the qualitative groups emphasize how those with access to the Internet use their mobile phones for getting both news and information.

In the case of the feature phone users, using the Internet in this way comes just behind radio and TV as a means of getting news and information whereas the percentage using Internet in this way is much lower in the overall population.

The Haves and the Have Nots

Until recently, access to the Internet was an almost entirely an urban phenomenon, although a small number of rural people now have access. But even in a more developed country like South Africa, only 24% of Internet users are in rural areas.

Furthermore the speed of Internet connection has accelerated faster in urban areas (allowing access to video material) than in rural areas.

The Meteoric Growth of Social Media

Over five years Facebook has grown from practically no users in Sub-Saharan Africa to become the most widely used social media platform.In the four countries where face-to-face surveys were carried out for this research, between 14% (Tanzania) and 27% (Ghana) of all respondents were using it, a significant number on basic phones using SMS.

Facebook is the dominant platform although there are interesting local variations. All forms of social media serve as a source of news and information alongside more traditional media.

People “like” news media (newspapers, radio and TV stations) on Facebook to get information and receive similar “news” or “research” alerts from friends and colleagues.

By Balancing Act

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Russell Southwood is the Chief Executive, Balancing Act, a consultancy and online publishing company specialising in telecoms, Internet and broadcasting in Africa. His consultancy ...
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