Internet & Mobile Stats: Africa Grows Fastest in the World (2009)

Each year the International Telecommunications Union puts out statistics on the state of mobile and internet data around the world. What I’m interested in is their “Information Society Statistical Profiles 2009 – Africa” report, put out just this week. Here are some key takeaways, but you should really go download the full report for yourself.

A decade of ICT penetration in Africa

“By the end of 2008, Africa had 246 million mobile subscriptions and mobile penetration has risen from just five per cent in 2003 to well over 30 per cent today. The high ratio of mobile cellular subscriptions to fixed telephone lines and the high mobile cellular growth rate suggest that Africa has taken the lead in the shift from fixed to mobile telephony, a trend that can be observed worldwide. The number of Internet users has also grown faster than in other regions.”

ICT penetration rates in Africa over the last 10 years

Despite this growth rate, penetration is far below the rest of the world. As the report states, “Less than 5% of Africans use the Internet, and fixed and mobile broadband penetration levels are negligible.” The global average is 23% internet penetration. This is due mainly to cost, but also to coverage over a very large continent that lacks population density outside of major cities.

Not all of Africa is created equal

If you’re a company trying to make money off of providing services or products to mobile phone users in Africa, you have to think strategically. You can see from the chart below that the countries you should focus on first are Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania and Côte d’Ivoire.

Mobile subscriptions by country in Africa

This holds true for the internet as well. You’ll note that many of the top countries for mobile penetration are also countries with a strong internet growth rate.

Internet growth rate by country in Africa

“According to a recent household survey conducted by Research ICT Africa, the main location of Internet use in such countries as Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania and Zambia is the cyber/Internet café.”

Leapfrogging… with a catch

Many reports you read will sing the praises of the mobile networks and how the leapfrogging of landlines has helped Africa. That’s true, and I’m one of those people. However, it comes with a catch, and that catch is that the lack of landlines in Africa means that it’s a lot harder to get fixed-line broadband penetration, whether ADSL or otherwise. This keeps prices high and primarily availability is only in urban areas.

This gives the mobile operators a significant advantage in Africa, and it’s the reason why 3G (mobile broadband) technology is leading the way and why most of the growth will be through the mobile networks.

Fixed Broadband Growth in Africa

To put it in real numbers. By the end of 2008 there were only 635,000 fixed-line broadband subscribers in all of Africa, representing 0.1% of the population, whereas the world average is 6%. Mobile broadband sees 7 million subscribers with a penetration representing 0.9% of the population, again 6% being the global average.

In Summary

This report is an absolute gold mine of valuable data on internet and mobile phone usage, penetration and growth rates in Africa. I could go on with more graphs and thoughts on each section, but you should do yourself a favor and download the free copy and read it.

Finally, some last charts showing mobile cellular subscriptions, mobile broadband and internet subscriptions by country in Africa:

Internet users by country in Africa

Mobile subscribers and mobile broadband by country in Africa

Liberian Bush Radio Escapades

Today finds me off in Bopola, a town well off the beaten track North of Monrovia, Liberia – where I’ve taken a lot of pictures and had a good time getting out of the city. I hitched a ride with an American NGO taking breeding rabbits upcountry, so the back of the pickup truck had 80 furry big-ears in it. It smelled some, since they had picked them up in Guinea 2 days before.

Handing out rabbits in Liberia

I saw this fascinating creation called a BUV on their station before I left too. 3 wheels, and it looks like it can haul anything.

BUV

The ride was just what I was looking for; providing me a chance to get out and see how the country really breathes and moves. The outskirts of Monrovia are hectic, as you would expect, but as soon as you get out it slows waaaay down.

Radio Gbarpola

One of my main missions while out is to talk to some rural community radio managers. When we got in, I made contact with the owner/manager of Radio Gbarpola and we had a good 2-hour discussion on their technology, programming, practices and business growth possibilities.

radio gbarpola in liberia

International Alert has pumped a decent amount of money into a number of strategically located community radio facilities. Radio Gbarpola is one of them, and boasts a bank of solar powered batteries, a 300 watt transmitter, a split studio, a 2-deck CD and tape player, and a motorcycle (for the news reporter to visit locations on). That’s some spread!

As I had expected, this radio station is one of the only ways anyone in much of the county can find out what is going on within the county. They currently cover 2/3 of it, and with a repaired or new antenna, they can reach all of it. The only mobile phone antennas are owned by Lonestar, and it doesn’t have nearly the reach of the radio station.

Getting interviewed at Radio Gbarpola

While there, they insisted on a quick interview as well – I hope the Liberians in Gbarpola county can understand my American English… :)

New technology injection

Being myself, after exhausting my question supply, I started demo’ing what you could do with just a SIM card, mobile phone, and a computer. The first thing out was a quick test of FrontlineSMS there, which worked like a charm. I explained how a setup like that could add a new revenue stream as well, if they started selling text ads.

Then, I went on to talk about what we did in Kenya with Ushahidi, and ask about what they thought of similar technology in Liberia. Interestingly enough, it turns out that all “important” information seems to filter into the radio quickly. It’s either direct to, or direct to police-to-radio.

That that has started me thinking about is using the 50+ community radio stations in Liberia as nodes in a larger network. I’m thinking it might be possible to set up a number of them with a FrontlineSMS system that uses Mesh4x to sync certain information between them and up to Headquarters in Monrovia. Just an idea at this point, but well worth doing more discovery on.

[Note: How did I manage to post way out in the middle of nowhere? Aforementioned NGO has a nice slow connection, and I have all night to upload these resized images…]