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[liberationtech] [TIER] smartphone usage in africa

Jenna Burrell jenna1 at
Fri Aug 19 11:22:48 PDT 2016

When considering usage, don't forget to think about phone sharing. There's
a piece I wrote a while back (pre smartphone) that discusses practices
around phone sharing in rural Uganda and the related gender dynamics:

Also, an old piece (also pre smartphone), but one that breaks down the
difficulties of 'counting' phone use in Africa pretty well:

I would second the recommendation of Susan Wyche's article -

Carlos, glad to see your survey too!

Also, what I observed a few years back was that the devices being sold as
'smartphones' were way way more diverse in Ghana, Uganda. Lots of phone
brands I'd never heard of, brand knock-offs, etc. Designing apps for the
'smartphone' market would be difficult and how well an app would port to
the great variety of 'smartphones' you may find throughout Africa is

Jenna Burrell
Associate Professor
School of Information

On Fri, Aug 19, 2016 at 12:12 AM, Carlos Rey-Moreno <
carlos.reymoreno at> wrote:

> 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,
> regards,
> carlos
> 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 [
>>>> ys/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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>> _______________________________________________
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>> Website:
>> TIER at
> --
> 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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