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[liberationtech] [TIER] smartphone usage in africa

Carlos Rey-Moreno carlos.reymoreno at
Fri Aug 19 00:12:36 PDT 2016

Hi Arjuna, following on Chris's comments, we've recently published in ITD
an in-depth survey about ICT ownership, usage and expenditure of a rural
community in South Africa. You can download it from here:

It confirms most of his assumptions, from the importance of electricity (as
reflected by the amount they expend on keeping their phones charged, 12% of
the total expenditure), the amount of time that people spend without
airtime (around 40%), and the little usage and expenditure of Internet
services (22% of the people, 25MB per month).

We are currently analyzing another in-depth study in another village where
charging station where not installed (the study above is in the village
where Zenzeleni Networks <> is
operating), and the percentage of the total expenditure dedicated to
electricity is even higher.

I hope it helps,



On 17 August 2016 at 06:29, Katy Pearce <katycarvt at> wrote:

> I wrote this piece a few years back, may be of interest...
> On Tue, Aug 16, 2016, 9:27 PM Katy Pearce <katycarvt at> wrote:
>> Also for what it's worth, surveying in much of Africa is incredibly
>> challenging for a variety of reasons. I'd be cautious in trusting it.
>> On Tue, Aug 16, 2016, 9:23 PM Chris Csikszentmihalyi <robotic at>
>> wrote:
>>> Hi Arjuna,
>>> Just a quick note that usage can be quite different across Africa: it's
>>> a big country! [sic]. So by rural; urban; income; gender, phone ownership
>>> is only one aspect of an individual's use strategy. Don't assume that an
>>> owned smart phone is on, charged, or connected to data, indeed it is
>>> probably being used very differently than a North American or European
>>> might expect.
>>> A lot of Africa ICT infographics use ITU figures, which tend to be very
>>> boosterish, citing for instance sim subscriptions rather than the much
>>> smaller number of active users. This works well for the telcos, who want to
>>> look big, and for the ministers of communication, who want to look
>>> "developed." But even if you project active users, these figures can still
>>> be pretty misleading. Many urban professionals will have multiple sim
>>> phones, or simply multiple phones, in order to allow cheaper in-network
>>> calls with friends/colleagues with different providers. How many North
>>> Americans or Europeans use multiple sims every day? I've seen many
>>> journalists and scholars conflate subscriptions with people.
>>> One way we tried to reconcile the figures with what we saw in the field
>>> was to divide the ITU's reported total of a country's voice minutes by
>>> population. This was back of envelope -- don't cite me and do correct me if
>>> I'm wrong -- but from what we saw in 2012, Kenyans spent an average of 3.5
>>> minutes per week in a voice call, Ghanaians 3, Nigerians 1. These are most
>>> people's primary phones, and this is average not the median, so given
>>> income distributions it would be safe to imagine that something like 80% of
>>> the population is far lower. In most of the countries I've been to telco
>>> data packages are pretty expensive, and edge/3g/4g networks are worse than
>>> GSM. So in a rural area there may be no data available, but you'll still
>>> see some smart phones. Add to that the problem of charging outside urban
>>> areas, and many users simply carry a powered off phone without credit. In
>>> rural Uganda, where I'm working, when a farmer has to make a call, s/he
>>> travels kilometers to a shop to charge and purchase credits. Why tie up
>>> your money in credits that might devalue? But this strategy means that one
>>> is generally not available for received calls/texts.
>>> Why have a smart phone if you aren't really connected to data? For
>>> instance, there are big bluetooth/sd card movie/music trading networks. An
>>> Xiao Mina found folks with dubbed martial arts movies that had been passed
>>> by hand for long distances [
>>> essays/mapping-the-sneakernet/]. Susan Wyche also wrote about some of
>>> the patterns of use in (iirc) Kenya in ""Dead China-make" phones off the
>>> grid: Investigating and designing for mobile phone use in rural Africa."
>>> All of which is to say that the Pew figures are probably correct, but
>>> parsing their meaning requires quite a bit of local knowledge. If anyone
>>> can get deeper figures on data usage, background data usage, time powered
>>> on, etc, I'd be excited to see them.
>>> C.
>>> --
>>> Chris Csikszentmihályi
>>> ERA Chair & Scientific Director
>>> Professor
>>> [image: m-itiLogo] <>
>>> ------------------------------
>>> | csik at |
>>> <>
>>> * "Art means… to resist the course of a world that unceasingly holds a
>>> gun to mankind's chest."
>>> --Theodore Adorno*
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Carlos Rey-Moreno, PhD
PostDoctoral Fellow University of the Western Cape
Zenzeleni Networks:
Cel: +27 (0) 76 986 3633
Skype: carlos.reymoreno Twitter: Creym
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