Closing the Usage Gap in Africa: Are We Making Progress?

As the connectivity gap we deal with in Africa is slowly closing, there is the emergence of a new pressing issue in the form of the Usage gap.

In today’s interconnected world, mobile internet has become a lifeline, linking individuals to essential services and economic opportunities. Yet, Africa grapples with a persistent challenge – the mobile internet usage gap. As the connectivity gap we deal with in Africa is slowly closing, there is the emergence of a new pressing issue in the form of the Usage gap —which refers to those who do not use mobile Internet despite residing in an area with a mobile broadband network. 

As of 2022, global mobile internet users reached an impressive 4.6 billion, constituting 57% of the global population. Africa, however, lags, with 680 million individuals yet to be part of the digital landscape. The GSMA’s State of Mobile Connectivity 2023 report highlights a paradox: while Sub-Saharan Africa boasts 287 million mobile internet subscribers, the usage gap persists, overshadowing gains made in coverage. 

What makes this usage gap even more perplexing is the evident progress in bridging the coverage gap. Globally, 95% of the population lives within the footprint of a mobile broadband network. However, the usage gap remains nearly eight times larger than the coverage gap.

This raises a critical question: Why does the usage gap persist despite narrowing coverage gaps? In Sub-Saharan Africa, where awareness of mobile internet is growing but has slowed since 2019, the situation is particularly pronounced. The data suggests that owning a smartphone is not a guarantee of internet usage.

At the close of 2022, 54% of the global population owned a smartphone, and of the 4.6 billion mobile internet users, almost 4 billion access it through smartphones. Astonishingly, 350 million people own a smartphone but do not use mobile internet. This poses a unique challenge, especially in Africa, where 680 million individuals are still untouched by the digital wave.

Getting Unstuck: What Key Barriers Contribute to Widening the Usage Gap in Africa? 

Exploring Africa’s mobile internet landscape beyond mere statistics, a TechAfrica News interview with Angela Wamola, GSMA’s head of sub-Saharan Africa reveals three distinct groups that define this gap within the mobile broadband footprint (60% of the population that remains unconnected):  She categorised them into; 

  1. Smartphone Owners: Despite owning smartphones, a significant portion of Sub-Saharan Africa (4%) remains unconnected to mobile internet.
  1. Alternate Mobile Users: In Sub-Saharan Africa (16%), individuals use basic or feature phones for mobile services but haven’t transitioned to mobile internet.
  1. No Mobile Device Owners: A substantial part, ranging from 40% in Sub-Saharan Africa, lacks ownership of any mobile device. 

In this interview, Angel Wamola also discusses the challenge of being “unstuck,” emphasizing that even though 40% of the 680 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa have access to a 2G or 3G signal, they still face barriers in effectively utilizing it. This is a critical area where we need to get unstuck leveraging data to make informed decisions and shaping policies and fiscal strategies that will accelerate progress and increase accessibility more rapidly.

During a discussion I had with Lacina Kone, the CEO of Smart Africa, he conveyed the significant challenges aggravating the usage gap across Africa. He emphasized that while the network infrastructure is in place, its utilization is hindered by four primary factors: Affordability of the cost of the internet, the cost of the devices, local content, and Cyber Hygiene. 

The network is there but people are not using it and this is related to four things: the affordability of the cost of the internet, the cost associated with acquiring handsets and smart devices, the availability of local content beyond just social media, and lastly, cyber hygiene.

Lacina Kone, CEO of Smart Africa

Affordability Challenges 

Affordability emerges as the primary barrier among various factors inhibiting internet adoption, encompassing not only service and data costs but critically the accessibility of smartphones and feature phones. At MWC Kigali 2023, During an interview I had with Max Cuvellier, the head of Mobile for Development (M4D) at GSMA when asked about the most critical barrier to mobile development, he responded succinctly:

They are all important but for me, is coupling addressing handset affordability and digital skills that have the most potential because if you can put the handset in people’s hands and tell them how to use it, there are already relevant services out there for them to consume

Max Cuvellier, Head of Mobile for Development (M4D), GSMA

Across surveyed countries, the most frequently cited barriers for individuals aware of mobile internet but not using it revolve around affordability, especially the costs of handsets. For example, the affordability of an entry-level internet-enabled device remains relatively stable across lower-middle-income countries (LMICs). However, it translates to a substantial percentage of the average monthly income, with a more significant impact on the poorest segments of the population. 

Affordability reaches 40% for the poorest 40% of the population and a notable 55% for the poorest 20%, as an internet-enabled phone would cost more than 120 percent of their monthly income. Additionally, gender disparities are evident, with women facing a higher affordability challenge compared to men. For instance, In Senegal, the lack of an affordable handset emerged as the top reason for 61% of women and 46% of men do not own a mobile phone, emphasizing the tangible impact on diverse demographic groups.

Digital Skills and Literacy Gaps

Low levels of digital skills and literacy further exacerbate the usage gap in Africa. Many individuals, especially women and those in rural areas, face challenges in navigating the digital landscape, inhibiting their ability to access and benefit from mobile internet services. There are also concerns about negative features and hazards associated with mobile and internet use, including harassment, theft, fraud, and information security.

If you break it down you find that out of that 680 million, 14 million already have a smartphone, but they have never gone online. Meaning they have the money to buy it, but just don’t know what to do with it. We have to unpack those barriers – it could be language or people feeling there is no content for them,

Angela Wamola, GSMA’s head of sub-Saharan Africa

Gender Disparities 

Gender disparities persist in mobile internet use in Africa, with women 19% less likely to access it than men. To close this gap by 2030, over 800 million women in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) need to adopt mobile internet, according to the GSMA Mobile Gender Gap Report. The latest findings reveal a slowdown in adoption, with 61% of women in LMICs currently using mobile internet. Efforts must be intensified to overcome barriers and ensure meaningful digital inclusion for women in Africa. 

Infrastructure Limitations

Despite the expansion of mobile broadband coverage, Africa grapples with significant infrastructure limitations, especially in rural and sparsely populated areas. These regions, often the most challenging to reach, face persistent connectivity issues, contributing to the digital divide between urban and rural areas. 

In 2020, global mobile broadband coverage increased to 94%, leaving 450 million people without access, primarily in remote rural areas with difficult terrain. Bridging this infrastructure gap is essential for fostering equitable access to mobile internet across diverse landscapes in Africa.

Lack of Awareness

Despite a general increase in awareness globally, there has been a notable slowdown since 2019. Surveys across 12 countries in 2022 revealed that over 80% of the population was aware of mobile internet. However, persistent gaps in awareness, especially among women and rural communities, underscore the need for targeted educational efforts. Approximately a quarter of adults in surveyed countries are still unaware of the benefits of mobile internet, emphasizing the importance of comprehensive awareness campaigns to bridge this critical knowledge gap. 

The Way Forward is a Collaborative Effort. 

Based on several conversations I’ve engaged in within both public and private sectors over the past year, my optimism has grown significantly. It’s become increasingly clear that if we collectively unite our efforts, we have the potential to close the usage gap more swiftly than we ever connected the unconnected. Reflecting on these dialogues, I am genuinely excited about the possibilities that lie ahead. 

Addressing Africa’s usage gap demands a multifaceted strategy, with public-private partnerships (PPPs) at its core. By fostering collaboration between governments, private entities, and NGOs, transformative initiatives can emerge. Governments, through supportive regulatory frameworks, can incentivize private sector investment in telecommunications infrastructure, fostering innovation and competition.

Simultaneously, tackling the affordability barrier is pivotal. Targeted subsidies and tax incentives for affordable smartphones, in conjunction with innovative pricing models like pay-as-you-go data plans, can broaden accessibility. Governments collaborating with mobile operators and manufacturers can ensure the availability of budget-friendly devices, ensuring economic constraints don’t impede connectivity. 

Recent initiatives in affordability are promising. In Rwanda, the Macye Macye initiative, a collaboration between the Bank of Kigali and MTN Rwanda, enables customers to buy smartphones and tablets on credit. In Kenya, the Digital Economy Cabinet Secretary and Kenyan ICT launched a cost-effective smartphone initiative, supported by telecom companies like Safaricom, Jamii Telecom, and Airtel.

Moreover, enhancing digital literacy is key to overcoming awareness challenges. Collaborative campaigns led by governments, NGOs, and tech companies can educate communities on the benefits of mobile internet, promoting digital skills and online safety. Empowering individuals with the knowledge to navigate the digital landscape is foundational to bridging the usage gap.

Inclusive policy frameworks play a pivotal role. Flexible frameworks encouraging market competition drive innovation and reduce costs. Incentivizing the expansion of mobile broadband coverage to overlooked areas is crucial for inclusive policy initiatives.

In conclusion, closing the usage gap in Africa requires a comprehensive strategy. Public-private partnerships, coupled with initiatives focusing on affordability, digital literacy, infrastructure development, and inclusive policy frameworks, collectively contribute to a more connected and empowered Africa.  

With great anticipation, I am eagerly looking forward to the upcoming industry gatherings, particularly the MWC Barcelona next week. The prospect of continuing these conversations fills me with enthusiasm, recognizing that the solutions to not only the usage gap but many challenges in Africa’s digital future originate from these conversations.

It is through these interactions that we can foster collaboration, exchange valuable insights, and drive our collective mission forward. By coming together, we have the power not only to bridge existing gaps but also to pave the way for a future that is more connected and inclusive.

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