Flying blind into the bright lights of Africa’s data future – Spotting the known unknowns

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Africa’s voice subscriber data may not always be reliable but it exists. The equivalent Internet data is extremely hard to find. Lack of data is equivalent of trying to cross a busy expressway in the complete dark. Russell Southwood looks at what’s available and argues that in a data future involving more than the mobile operators, there’s a crying need for regular data.

Fifteen years ago, the number of Africans connected to the Internet varied between hundreds in the smaller countries to thousands in the larger. Now the more developed markets in Africa have between 15-20% of the market using Internet.

Back in the day, the only real way to get Internet data was to go round and talk individually to each ISP. Then you added up the numbers and took off what seemed like a reasonable amount for ISP exaggeration: an advanced form of guesswork.

But this kind of market data should be available on the same regular basis as voice subscription data. Unfortunately only 10 regulators in Africa provide this kind of regular data and only 8 are reasonably well updated. The results are below:

Country                Mobile (3G & below)        All Other

Nigeria                    65.8 m                            N/A

Kenya                     13.9 m                            99,342

Ghana                    13.42 m                          N/A

Morocco                  6.86 m                           9.21 m

Senegal                  5.93 m                           398,706

Zimbabwe                5.3 m                           124,277

Tunisia                    4.22 m                          552,000

Uganda                   4.1 m                            106,000

Mauritania              346,373                         7,411

South Africa                N/A                           N/A

South Africa’s ICASA has a grandly titled ICT Indicators Portal but it only has data from 2011 and 2012 and the data is incomplete, as if somebody was testing how the data might look if entered. Zambia’s ZICTA has a similar portal but it can only be access using a user name and password, which is presumably for operators to supply data. The Tanzanian regulator TCRA published a one-off study on Internet in the country but it is now several years out of date.

If 9 African regulators can publish this kind of data on a quarterly basis, what is preventing the rest of them from doing the same? Operators can be asked and in the final instance compelled to provide the data. If you want a market to develop (as we saw with voice), there are no issues of commercial confidentiality on this kind of data. It should be provided and published as a matter of course.

Some of the regulators above have only provided mobile Internet data as if anything else did not matter. In our view, this is a big mistake as faster and more reliable forms of Internet may be available by other means.

The figures above demonstrate that in many of the countries covered a significant proportion of the population has access to the Internet. Yet people still talk as if Internet access in Africa was the privilege of a very few. There are all sorts questions that can be asked about the data but it is clear Internet access is significantly more widespread since 3G data prices began to come down.

The Internet and data markets in Africa do not just involve the interests of the mobile operators. Last week we wrote about Jumia (see video clip interview with Jeremy Doutte, CEO below) and Konga in Nigeria who between them have 2 million customers. Their businesses rely upon accurate information about who is connected to the Internet and in what way. (As an aside, you will be interested to know, for example, that there are 128 LTE subscribers in Zimbabwe).

In addition to the data about how many people are connected to the Internet, it would be useful for regulators to publish Smartphone vs Featurephone penetration and more generally what other devices – like tablets – are connected to the Internet. Also if price has been one of the most significant drivers of Internet adoption, more regulators should publish price comparisons. Africa’s data market is at the very beginning of the journey and reliable data will be crucial to all those who make the journey.

Digital Content Africa: Balancing Act’s web TV channel Smart Monkey TV has launched a new e-letter called Digital Content Africa. On a fortnightly basis, it will cover online film, music, publishing and services and applications. We have already produced 20 issues and these can be viewed on this link:

Essential reading for those in mobile VAS to anyone just interested in what African and relevant international content they can now get online. If you would like to subscribe, just send an email to with Digital Content Africa in the title line. Some examples of past issues below:

Digital Content Africa Z26: Africa’s coming digital content generation – Market research from 3.5 countries looks at music, TV and film use

Digital Content Africa Z24: The South African TV announcer who runs a fashion blog from Moscow which she is going to turn into a business

Digital Content Africa Z19 – The Mobile Deal that is keeping Africans from having more music, film and TV on their mobiles

Videos interviews to watch:
Jeremy Doutte on Jumia Nigeria as the largest retailer in Nigeria and its top selling items

Adedoyin Ogundoyin on WAGE 14, West Africa's first computer gaming exhibition and conference

Eric Nienaber on social messaging app Chatly for those who value their privacy

Bas Hoefman, Text To Change on using SMS for Tanzania's largest m-health programme

Nicola D'Elia on Facebook as an "on-ramp" for Africa's first-time Internet users

Raul Martinez, Millicom on digital content in Africa and how it's backing start-ups

Mark Bennett, iSchool on using low cost tablets to change learning methods in Zambia

Babatunde Olaifa on the biggest football website in Africa,

Nkiru Balonwu, CEO, music platform Spinlet on how mobile operators take most of their revenues

John Davies, Intel on ways to connect the last 4 billion people unconnected globally with examples from Kenya, South Africa, India, Bangladesh and Colombia

Bastian Gotter of Lagos incubator Spark on providing services for Africans coming online

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