The vanishing point for African online use - Why mobile apps will have a tough time succeeding Africa

10 May 2019

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There’s a great deal of news about the increase in the number of smartphones but not so much about the use of mobile apps in Africa. People talk a lot about how many times their mobile app has been downloaded but hardly at all about actual active users. Russell Southwood looks at the depressing stats behind trying to succeed with a mobile app in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Between them, the two largest app stores globally had 3.9 million apps in Q1, 2019: the biggest Google Play has 2.1 million apps and the second largest, the Apple App Store has 1.8 million. For most African countries, Android is the dominant OS so when an African app developer loads up his or her mobile app, it’s going it into an online supermarket that has over 2 million products. Of these, apps in the Play Store, 60% are never downloaded.

The pattern globally is that people get a smartphone and add to the apps it comes pre-loaded with. If the number of apps they might choose from sounds daunting, then you might be cheered up by the total number of global downloads which is somewhere between 150-200 billion downloads globally.

But how many of these apps actually get used? According to App Annie’s Retrospective 2016, users across a range of countries (including larger emerging markets outside Africa) used 9-11 apps a day and about 30 a month. An earlier study by Forrester in 2015 found that users used just 5 per day if you excluded pre-installed apps. In other words, out of the two million plus potential apps Android owners might download, they only really used a very, very small number.

So what happens after people make those downloads? Global studies by Localytics show that only 23-29% of users (depending on the subject) still used the app just once a month after 90 days. Ah, but I hear you say, it’s different in Africa. I don’t have a detailed study to show otherwise but some examples below might illustrate that things are not so different to those global stats that include non-African emerging markets.

I spoke recently to a large African start-up that had just over a 30% active base of users from millions of downloads. Now imagine how many active users you get out of 10,000 downloads.

The other impact of this relatively low conversion rate is inevitably the high cost of customer acquisition. Put simply, you have to recruit a million people to download the app in order to get 200,000-300,000 people who will actually use it on even an occasional basis.

There are two significant pressures of the use of apps in Sub-Saharan African markets: the cost of data for actually downloading an app and the continuing cost of updating that app.

biNu’s Moya Messenger in South Africa became concerned about the data costs of downloading and offered potential users. According to Gour Lentell, biNu:” All sharing of the Moya app refers people to the website, which is also free of data cost as it’s hosted on one of our zero-rated IP addresses (across all four major mobile networks). Users are given the option to download Moya from our Google Play Store listing or as a #datafree direct download of the Android APK install file”. Offered a choice of a data-free download, 60% went to the data-free website and only 30% direct to the Google Play Store.

”At first, take-up was not as strong as we thought it would be. There’s an app install problem in South Africa. Because of data costs, people only install 5-6 apps. People are building fantastic apps but no-one is installing them”. It carried out a Mobile Consumer Research Project 2018 in South Africa highlights of which make sobering reading:

- 84% of people have phones with 16 GB of storage capacity or less;

- 70% of people buy airtime data in amounts of R50 ($3.40) or less and 62% of people buy data top-ups at least weekly, or more often; most people have irregular or no access to Wi-Fi.;

- 82% of people regularly run out of data;

- 81% of people interviewed face-to-face had 5 or less apps they had installed on their phones;

- 100% of people interviewed had WhatsApp installed, 96% had SHAREit and 67% had Facebook Lite;

- the factors people consider most before installing an app are:- available phone storage (34%), data cost to download (29%), how long they might want to use it for (21%), how much data an app will use (14%);

- 90% of people regularly get apps through file sharing with friends (using SHAREit) instead of using data to download from the app store;

- 64% of people said messaging was the activity they missed the most when they were without data — the next closest was 19% who said they missed ‘social media’.

On this basis he created a disruption to WhatsApp, a data free messaging platform called Moya Messenger. It’s a messenger platform you can use whether or not you have data, which has 150,000 actives in South Africa and will be going live in Nigeria soon.

”It’s a messenger app you can use for text messaging whether or not you have data. It’s all one app and it’s data free”. The app also allows access to all the other data free service clients that biNu has signed up.

On the costs of updating apps, the OTT providers are well aware of the issues. Kenyan hot-spot provider BRCK’s 350,000 users can make use of free data access specifically designed (and paid for) to update their Facebook app products.

So what’s the answer? Well one answer is aggregated apps. Before he left MTN, Herman Singh talked about creating an app that combined all the different things you might want to do and having had some success with this approach in Iran. Go-Jek, the biggest motorcycle ride-share app in Indonesia is an all-in-one mobile wallet, ride-hailing, food delivery, and lifestyle services app. WeChat is the Chinese version of an aggregated app built around its messaging capabilities but has not had a whole lot of traction in Sub-Saharan Africa. Moya Messenger above is a data-free aggregated app.

And the alternative? Well, it’s that thing called the internet (see the report below) and it works on smartphones in Africa. It’s an old trick but it just might work.

Interested in working out how many potential online users you might get?

Digital Landscapes 2019 Sub-Saharan Africa’s Digital Landscape and its Top 11 Markets

Digital Landscapes 2019 coverDigital Landscapes 2019 Balancing Act has just published a 148 pp report called Sub-Saharan Africa’s Digital Landscape and its Top 11 Markets – data prices, smartphones, digital content and services and e-commerce. After four year's research, it's my analysis of how big Sub-Saharan Africa's online activity really is; who's actually paying for anything; how they're paying for it; and what they're doing in terms of online behavior (both content and services). It has over a thousand data points in it, many from completely new sources. I think you and your colleagues will find it very interesting and useful. The report is now published and the price is GBP1,650.

If you’re interested in seeing Contents Page and a full listing of all tables and graphics just mail me send me an email requesting it. If you would like to buy it, just send me an email requesting an invoice: