While the 2007/08 African ICT access and use survey demonstrated alarmingly little access to the Internet on the continent, together with a large-scale absence of computers and smart phones, compounded by the high cost of connectivity (Gillwald and Stork, 2008), the mobile phone is now the key entry point for Internet use.1 Internet access has grown significantly, increasing Internet penetration to 15.5 per cent across the ten African countries surveyed on household and individual ICT access and use by Research ICT Africa in 2011/12.2
Mobile Internet requires fewer ICT skills and financial resources, and does not rely on electricity at home, compared to computer or laptop and fixed-Internet access, in general. Other findings highlight the unevenness of Internet take-up across and within countries. So, while the majority of the countries under investigation demonstrate increased mobile Internet take-up, in Rwanda, Tanzania and Ethiopia, Internet use remains negligible. South Africa had the highest Internet penetration rate, with nearly 34 per cent of the population who are 15 years or older using the Internet.
From a policy perspective, what is significant about these rare demand-side studies is their national representativeness, which allows for the disaggregation of data by sex, income and education, which is simply not available with supply- side data. For example, the survey was able to identify that in Namibia and Tanzania Internet access is balanced between the genders, while in Uganda, Ethiopia and Rwanda mobile Internet access seems to be the domain of men, with only between 10 and 30 per cent of mobile Internet users being female.
The representativeness also enables the modelling of the data to understand the real causes of inequality, and facilitates identification of the actual points of policy intervention. For example, the modelling of the descriptive gender data has shown no significant gender effect for mobile phone ownership when controlling the data for income and education. This means that women with similar income, education and employment status are as likely as men to own a mobile phone. However, as women generally have less access to employment (income) and education, this decreases the likelihood of mobile ownership and mobile Internet use.
Unlike some of the micro-studies of Internet use in Africa, the study surveys also those marginalised from services and the reasons for this. In Namibia, Tanzania, South Africa and Botswana, not having a computer/Internet connection is the main reason for not using the Internet. In Namibia, this is followed by a lack of skills (“I don’t know how to use it”) and by the cost of the Internet, considered by 78.4 per cent of non-users to be too expensive. While in the majority of the countries lack of skills was identified as a major barrier to Internet adoption, cost was considered the second biggest barrier in Uganda and Rwanda. In Ethiopia, where the prices of the monopoly services are politically determined, though still high, the factor of cost was lowest, at 5 per cent.
In those countries where mobile Internet is boosting connectivity, this is being driven by social networking applications. Understanding prepaid mobile Internet further provides a pro-poor dimension to public policies seeking to improve Internet access, which historically was available and affordable only to the elite. The rest of society had to rely on public access points, whether private Internet cafés or schools and libraries. This policy paper concludes by raising significant policy questions on how the Internet is used and accessed. It highlights the importance of demand stimulation, such as reducing the price of services and devices, developing e-literacy and skills and relevant content, as much as supply- side measures, which traditionally have focused on infrastructure expansion only.
Stork, C., Calandro, E., & Gillwald, A. (2013). Understanding internet going mobile (Evidence for ICT Policy Action). Research ICT Africa. https://researchictafrica.net/publication/understanding-internet-going-mobile/