Four-country study of African Internet users shines light on how they use it and the barriers to greater use

4 August 2017

Top Story

A four-country study backed by Mozilla and carried out by Research ICT Africa provides a much-needed refresh of what African Internet users are doing; what influences their access behavior; and how greater access might be provided. Russell Southwood looks at the results from Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa.

In each case the country studies have used focus groups to explore user and non-user behavior in detail. These are not representative sample surveys but they give a far more nuanced picture than these kinds of surveys are able to. In each country, the groups were held in urban, peri urban and rural places except in Nigeria where they were held in the cities of Lagos, Kano and Enugu.

One key area for study was the use of subsidized data services like Facebook’s Free Basics. In Nigeria this was introduced in April 2016. The study found that there were low levels of awareness of the service:”In many cases they showed strong skepticism as to the practicality of this product and expressed fears that the mobile operator will eventually deduct whatever data is used on the zero rated platforms from their phone”.

The Rwanda focus group members were far less skeptical but the country researcher notes that:” (the) use of subsidized data services…constitute a great part of data use as it allows MNOs to keep big numbers of subscribers that effectively use Internet even though the content is very limited to two or three services.”

In Kenya there was a combination of scepticism and approval for subsidized services. One group participant said:”I don't believe in free things.” Whereas another said:”I think free Internet will be a revolution. It is going to turn our county.”

Freebasics seemed much less widely used in South Africa:”None of the users reported going online because they had access to Freebasics.”

Gender differences reported vary by country and the results do not seem always to coincide with other research done specifically on this topic. The Rwanda researcher reported that there is “no direct linkage between gender and the use of the Internet apart from time spent on the Internet with males spending more time….compared to females.”

A more skeptical person might observe that this probably reflects a disparity in income and domestic roles. The Nigeria researcher reported that there were no differences between male and female behavior but that cannot be the whole story. The Kenyan study has a lot of nuanced material on the topic, interestingly noting the impact on relationships from Internet use. The South African study noted that gender issues were more likely to arise in rural rather than urban areas. It also noted gendered tastes in accessing content with women more likely to access health sites and men sports sites.

The barriers to greater Internet access differ by country but contain many of the same elements. In Rwanda, those barriers are illiteracy, lack of understanding of foreign languages and financial resources. Not understanding former colonial languages and not having a first language equivalent is a key barrier and something I noted after visiting Mali last year.

Minus language, the same barriers are noted in Nigeria that also adds tech literacy and awareness of the benefits of the Internet. Is it not time to find a way of teaching both literacy and tech literacy together using the mobile phone? The Kenya study adds network quality and available time. Network quality makes Internet access a frustrating and unrewarding experience, whoever you are. The South Africa study notes all of the above and includes Quality of Service and electricity shortages.

But the scale of the change in attitude to Internet use is best summed up in the Nigeria study:”Participants have come to accept the Internet as a veritable tool for news, social interactions, education, business, online shopping, funds transfer, career building, among others.”

The Kenya study noted that people used all the usual international social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, You Tube but also music sites like mdundo, sports betting sites and news sites. As one group participant noted:”My Dad is a tailor at Kenyatta Market so he uses it for marketing and selling through Whats App and emails”. The Kenya study noted how peer pressure from existing users made others take up Internet use.

The Kenya study also highlight how people use friends’ Wi-Fi connections and free Wi-Fi hot-spots in cafes. I was staggered when I was told recently by one operator that the average number of devices per Mi-Fi unit on his network was 12!

The financial reality of Internet use was best captured by the Nigeria study which showed that higher income users paid between US$3.17-9.52 per month, whereas low income users paid as low as US7 cents per month. Nevertheless, these urban group users considered the pricing of Internet bundles cheap and largely affordable.

Again it’s worth concluding with a quote from the Nigeria study to conclude:”They want to use ‘big phones’ (smartphones) and will rather not go online until they can afford one. They want high speed Internet at affordable prices.”

If you would like copies of the reports, please send me an email with the header Internet Study to 


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