Know what Africans are doing with their cell phones? It’s not what you think—new study

Pew Research Centre study confirms some truisms about mobile phone use, but then also throws out a few others.

WITH companies scrambling to push out their content onto social media platforms where Africans are increasingly active, many would be a bit mortified to learn that just 19%, or only one in five, of mobile phone owners access social networking sites through their devices.

Instead the vast majority (80%) use their mobile phones to send text messages, a new  study by the Pew Research Centre shows.

This rose to 95% of South Africans, and 92% of Tanzanians, the face-to-face survey done in seven key African countries showed. Taking pictures and videos was the next most popular activity, with a median of 53% saying they had done this over the past year, with this most popular in South Africa and Nigeria.

While mobile money has been identified as the next frontier, just a median of 30% of sub-Sahara Africans are using their cell phones to make payments, at just 15% of Nigerians, South Africans and Ghanaians.

But this number rose to 61% of Kenyans, 42% of Ugandans and 39% of Tanzanians, pushed by the prominence of payment services such as M-Pesa and MTN Mobile Money in the East African region.

Despite an existing unemployment problem, only 14% of Africans use their mobile phone to look or apply for a job, or get consumer information such as on prices and product availability. 

One reason for this is that accessing the internet—and subsequently some of these services— requires a smartphone. And while the ownership of mobile phones has grown exponentially—83% of Ghanaians own one today compared to just 8% in 2002— feature phones still form the majority.

Some 89% of South African adults, and a similar number of Nigerians, own a cell phone, the same number as those in the United States.

But just three in 10 of those in the two African countries are smartphones, with close to six in every 10 being feature phones. In the US, some 64% of adults own a smartphone, while an average of 17% of Africans do not own a cell phone, though many admitted to sharing with those who do.

Mobile phones are also as common with the old as with the young, though there were age gaps when it came to smartphone ownership—the young were more savvy.

But other findings of the report were closer to accepted thinking. Better educated Africans are likely to own cell phones—some 93% of Ugandans with at least a secondary education owned one, compared to just 61% with less education. 

In South Africa, this was more significant—57% against 13%.

Landline graveyard

Ownership is also higher among Africans who can speak or read English: one third of English-speaking Nigerians own a smartphone, compared with 2% of those Nigerians without the ability to read or write the language.

Men are also more likely to own a cell phone than women in six of the seven countries surveyed—the exception was in South Africa where equal numbers of men and women own mobile phones.

The poll also confirmed the death of the landline in sub-Saharan Africa. Penetration in the countries surveyed was near zero. A median of 97% of Africans said they do not have landlines, just 2% said they do.

In the US, some 60% of Americans have a landline. In other words, Africans have skipped the landline stage of development and jumped right to the digital age.

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