It may seem counterintuitive, but the relatively low state of Internet intensity in African nations gives these countries, and other developing economies, a big opportunity. Unshackled by legacy infrastructure or embedded commercial interests, they can leapfrog their developed counterparts by taking advantage of the next waves of innovation, including mobile access and social networking. Around the world, forward-thinking governments are moving to seize these opportunities, and their rising e-Intensity Index scores reflect these efforts. African governments can do the same.
Mobile phones are increasingly helping Africans run businesses, find jobs, pay their bills, transfer money, learn, share, bank, and connect. Four out of five Internet users in sub-Saharan Africa go online using mobile phones, compared with one in three globally, according to TNS, a market research firm. Three-quarters of sub-Saharan Africans say that they are content to do all their Internet surfing on a mobile phone, compared with about one-quarter in developed countries. Between 2012 and 2016, mobile connections in Africa are projected to grow at an annual rate of 21 percent.
Smartphone penetration is increasing, too. Samsung, the largest smartphone maker, recently announced plans to double its sales and marketing efforts in Africa, which it sees as the world’s second-biggest and fastest-growing market after China. Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana lead in smartphone sales. As feature phones are replaced by smartphones in the coming years, the Internet will be redefined across the continent. Governments and companies alike need to think “mobile first” when planning their Internet strategies.
Social networks play a key role in the Internet experience in emerging markets and are fast becoming important sources of information and commerce. Facebook has about 50 million users in Africa, according to analytics firm socialbakers. Facebook’s penetration is 13 percent in South Africa and around 30 percent in Tunisia and Mauritius. Egypt is Facebook’s most important country, with close to 12 million users, or 14 percent of the population. Mxit, a South Africa-based mobile-messaging platform, has rapidly developed itself into a content distribution platform and claims to be Africa’s biggest social network with 50 million users. Almost 60 percent of sub-Saharan African Internet users think social networking is the most important reason to use the Internet, compared with 26 percent worldwide, according to TNS.
Growing Internet use brings increasing benefits to both businesses and consumers. Our research shows that across 11 G-20 countries over the past three years, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with high Internet use experienced revenue growth that was up to 22 percent higher than that achieved by SMEs with low or no use of the Web. And they created more jobs. A 2012 survey of South African SMEs by World Wide Worx, a South African technology-research firm, found that almost 80 percent of those SMEs with websites were profitable, while only 60 percent of those without a website reported profitable operations.
There is an increasing number of examples of local applications, including mobile technology that helps farmers share best practices in order to increase crop yields and a Ghana based not-for-profit organization using an SMS-platform to fight the spread of counterfeit medication. Google is working in Africa to make the Internet local by providing language translation for many of the continent’s more than 2,000 languages.
As in developed economies, consumers place a considerable value on the Internet. In South Africa, for example, consumers believe that they receive value amounting to $1,215 over and above what they pay for devices, applications, services, and access—not far below the $1,430 average “consumer surplus” of the G-20. By comparison, Brazil’s consumer surplus is $1,287, Russia’s $1,002, Indonesia’s $364, and India’s $414.