ICT in Africa and the state of affairs


Information and communication technologies (ICT), especially mobile telephony and the Internet, now play an important role in the economic development of countries. This is because they are revolutionizing economic exchanges and economic growth and poverty reduction.

ICT is nowadays considered essential to accelerate development and contribute to the emergence of innovations in various fields such as: health, agriculture, finance, transport, trade, administration of public services, education, services, etc.

We often hear in the speeches of heads of state or politicians of developed countries and in the media the need to help African countries integrate into the “information society”.

But did the latter take into account the social, economic and cultural realities of these countries?

According to UNESCO’s definition, ICT means “all computer equipment and systems for storing, communicating, processing and managing data”.

The spread of ICT on the continent, which dates back to the late 1990s, has accelerated strongly in recent years. Despite this, Africa is still at the bottom of the world rankings for developing information and communication technology (ICT) and exploiting its potential.

ICT as a catch-up

In view of the underdevelopment of the African continent, the Internet can be a solution for the economic and social development of the Sub-Saharian countries.

The solutions offered by ICT can enable Africa to skip steps and thus achieve the development goals faster. This progress can be illustrated by the telephone and digital payments that have developed in a context of low availability of banks but which are also accelerators. Mobile payments, for example, enable faster and more secure remote transactions.

ICT can therefore help reduce the marginality of the African continent by facilitating the dissemination of and access to international information. Moreover, ICT can play an important role in the fight against poverty and exclusion.

However, the development of ICT in Africa is unbalanced: In general, only the main capitals are connected. The African rural world and small inland towns are largely destitute.

However, these areas not only host the majority of the population but also represent the continent’s main source of income (agricultural products). These areas are also characterized by financial, technological and human conditions unfavorable to the spread of the Internet (high illiteracy, economic poverty, inadequate telecommunications infrastructure, etc.).

The number of devices used

Between 2005 and 2015, the number of devices used on the continent increased from 130 to 900 million. Of those 900 million devices, fewer than 200 million were smartphones, and the GSMA estimated that number should reach 500 million by 2020. A large proportion of users have multiple phones and SIM cards.

Internet penetration rate in Africa

The penetration rate (number of internet users per 100 inhabitants), which has grown strongly over the past five years, is estimated to be about 24% in 2016 for the entire continent and less than 20% for Sub-Saharan Africa, while the global average is more than 45%.

According to the Internet World Stats, the internet penetration rate in Africa was 39.8% as of June 30, 2019, or 525 million users. This against a global average of 57.3%.

According to the GSM Association (GSMA) 2018 report on the African digital economy, mobile technologies contributed 7.1% to Sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP or $110 billion.

A study was conducted by MEDIANET Labs on the three main social media in Africa: Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. The data collected in October 2018 covers 53 African countries. This study takes into account the number, gender and age distribution of African social network users.

Research on African social media and the number of people connected to these social networks:

Africa has a population of 1,211,434,463. The number of inhabitants that is connected is 453,328,534 or 37.4% of the total African population. This represents 10.9% of the world’s internet users (4,156,932,140).

However, this dynamic is not the same everywhere on the continent. In sub-Saharan Africa, the penetration rate of mobile telephony varies widely from country to country.

In Niger and the Central African Republic it does not even reach 25% and in Eritrea it is estimated at 9%. In Mauritius, Seychelles, Botswana and South Africa it is almost 70%.

This is partly due to another specificity of the African continent: more than half of internet connections are made via mobile phones rather than computers.

In sub-Saharan Africa, therefore, it is currently the mobile phone that is driving the digital revolution. It has become an indispensable tool in everyday life, standing next to basic necessities (electricity and improved sanitation) whose coverage rates are comparable or even lower.

The mobile phone, with its low cost, is in turn accessible anytime and anywhere. Nor does it require too high a level of literacy and technical mastery.

Challenges to take on

One of the limitations of the diffusion of ICTs in Africa and the exploitation of their potential lies in the late development of the infrastructures which are still inadequately considered in the light of the needs of the inhabitants and the speed of increasing demand.

Influenced by significant investments from the United States and the main telecommunications operators operating on the continent, such as the European Orange, the Indian Airtel and the South African MTN and Vodacom, the 2G and 3G networks cover the most populated areas the continent. However, many rural areas lag behind when using the grid. 4G, which provides high-speed internet access, is only making headway in major cities.

Moreover, due to its speed and technical nature, the digital revolution brings risks of spatial fragmentation, especially between urban, rural and social. All this linked to age, gender, income inequality and/or education level.

To remedy this, the digital path cannot be followed and bear fruit without significant efforts in the areas of education, training and capacity building.

Simplifying technologies, lowering communication costs, securing flows and extending digital services to sectors such as agriculture and livestock, for example, are likely to narrow the gaps as well.

While the challenges of inadequate infrastructure, rural isolation, energy and expensive data have yet to be overcome, no one can deny that the entire continent is digitizing at an unprecedented rate.

Indeed, the telephone is a proportionally greater source of expenditure for African households than for those in northern countries. In addition to buying and repairing, communication costs add to the bills. While the cost of connecting to the internet from a phone is dropping rapidly, in Africa they remain higher than anywhere else.