How Reliable is Official Internet Penetration Data on Africa?
According to the 2016 Measuring the Information Society Report [starting on Page 244] from the International Telecommunication Union (an agency of the United Nations), the proportion of individuals using the internet in 9 African countries as at 2015 was as follows (we rank the countries from highest penetration to lowest penetration):
South Africa — 51.9%
Nigeria — 47.4%
Kenya — 45.6%
Egypt — 35.9%
Ghana — 23.5%
Zambia — 21%
Uganda — 19.2%
Zimbabwe — 16.4%
Tanzania — 5.4%
South Africa had the highest internet penetration followed by Nigeria. Tanzania at 5.4% is, at least officially, far behind all other countries. It’s important to note that the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has no power to directly collect this data on its own. As an agency of the United Nations, it relies on information provided to it by individual countries. Individual countries in turn obtain the numbers from internet service providers or household surveys.
So is the ITU receiving accurate data?
In the past, it was extremely difficult for one to interrogate these numbers. Today, the emergence of massive global websites and the availability of usage statistics from these sites has provided an avenue to check whether ITU’s penetration data is corroborated by actual internet use.
We are therefore going to look at country-level activity from 5 of the world’s most popular websites for which Africa data is available: Wikipedia, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. Broadly speaking, if the ITU internet penetration numbers are accurate, then we should expect that at some level, internet penetration will be reflected by country-level activity on all or most of these 5 major websites.
First, we look at traffic to Wikipedia, the 5th most popular website in the world. Roughly every 2 months, the Wikimedia Foundation publishes details of monthly country level traffic to Wikipedia. You can access the link here. Below is an extract of Africa data for August 2016.
The country with the most page views is South Africa at 52 million. It is followed by Egypt with 38 million views. In third place is Nigeria at 33 million views. Nigeria and Egypt are 2 of the 3 most populous countries in Africa so being in the top 3 countries by traffic is expected. Of the other 6 countries we are looking at, Kenya had 15 million views, Ghana 7.9 million, Tanzania 5.7 million, Uganda 3.5 million, and Zimbabwe and Zambia with 2.3 million each.
However, to establish which countries are most active on Wikipedia at individual level and see how this compares to ITU’s internet penetration data, we have to adjust the page views to each country’s population. After all, Nigeria’s 2015 population was 182 million people while Zimbabwe’s was 15.6 million. A direct comparison of views from each country wouldn’t say much about relative internet penetration in the two countries given the huge gap in population. We therefore look at the same page views at a per capita level (number of page views per 1,000 persons in each country).
Here, our 9 countries score as follows:
South Africa — 946 page views/1,000 persons
Nigeria — 181 page views/1,000 persons
Kenya — 326 page views/1,000 persons
Egypt — 415 page views/1,000 persons
Ghana — 288 page views/1,000 persons
Zambia — 142 page views/1,000 persons
Uganda — 90 page views/1,000 persons
Zimbabwe — 147 page views/1,000 persons
Tanzania — 107 page views/1,000 persons
· South Africa has by far the highest page views per capita. This is consistent with its relatively high internet penetration.
· Given Tanzania’s very low official internet penetration (5.4%), we would have expected it to fall far behind the rest. It turns out Tanzanians generated more page views than Ugandans per capita (internet penetration of 19.2%)
· Zimbabwe outperforms its relatively low internet penetration (16.4%), ranks ahead of Uganda and Zambia, and isn’t too far behind Nigeria.
· Nigeria has the second highest internet penetration (47.4%) of the 9 countries but its Wikipedia page views per capita falls behind Egypt (internet penetration of 35.9%), Kenya (45.6%) and Ghana (23.5%).
· Uganda has the lowest page views per capita among the 9 countries
Some of the gaps could have been overlooked as insignificant if they weren’t so large (e.g. 288 page views per 1,000 persons for Ghana versus 181 for Nigeria).
Going back to the global Wikipedia data, a quick read of the global ranking shows a broad correlation between Wikipedia page views on one hand and GDP and internet penetration on the other.
It is possible that some countries generate more page views because they not only have high internet penetration but also have a higher GDP per capita than their peers and can therefore afford to visit the internet more frequently. This does not seem to be a factor for Nigeria’s underperformance given that it has both higher internet penetration and GDP per capita (US$ 2,178 in 2016) than Kenya (US$ 1,455) and Ghana (US$ 1,513) but still falls well behind the two countries in page views per capita.
Another possible reason some countries’ Wikipedia views are not commensurate with their internet penetration is that Wikipedia is probably not as popular in their countries as it is in others. Comparing Wikipedia page views per capita and official internet penetration, this may be suspected to be the case for Nigeria, Uganda and Zambia. For that, we look at Alexa to see where Wikipedia ranks in terms of the most popular page in each country as at June 7th, 2017.
South Africa (6)
Going by this data, we would probably have expected Egypt and Kenya to do comparatively poorly given the lower rank of Wikipedia in the two countries. Instead, Egypt and Kenya have done better than Nigeria where Wikipedia is a more popular site nationally. In Uganda, Wikipedia is more popular than it is in Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Yet, the number of page views per capita from Uganda are less than those of both Tanzania and Zimbabwe.
Finally, were the Wikipedia August 2016 page views an exception? Looking at the below numbers from February 2017 and May 2017, the August 2016 figures were not an exception.
The following chart shows the number of active Instagram users as at the end of 2015 as well as Instagram’s penetration as a percentage of all internet users in each country.
We focus on the number of users and adjust for population to determine the number of users per capita. Thus, the number of Instagram users per 10,000 persons in each of the 9 countries is as follows:
South Africa — 273 users/10,000 population
Nigeria — 71 users/10,000 population
Kenya — 111 users/10,000 population
Egypt — 295 users/10,000 population
Ghana — 109 users/10,000 population
Zambia — 20 users/10,000 population
Uganda — 21 users/10,000 population
Zimbabwe — 28 users/10,000 population
Tanzania — 114 users/10,000 population
· Tanzania’s use of Instagram stands out. Despite officially having by far the lowest internet penetration of the 9 countries, it has the third highest use of Instagram and only ranks behind Egypt and South Africa.
· Egypt is another stand out performer and shows the highest Instagram use of the 9 countries.
· Once again, Nigeria performs below par given its internet penetration. It falls behind countries with lower internet penetration: Kenya, Egypt, Ghana and Tanzania.
· This time, Zambia is in last place but only just. Uganda was last for Wikipedia and barely escapes being in the same position for Instagram.
As we did for Wikipedia, we use Alexa to see where Instagram lies in the ranking of most popular websites in each of the 9 countries.
South Africa (13)
Instagram is fairly popular in Tanzania and this seems to at least partly explain the unusually high number of users. It doesn’t rank as highly in Egypt so the high number of users is impressive for the country. Instagram ranks lowest in Uganda and Zambia and this seems to be consistent with the poor use of the platform in those two countries.
Instagram is comparatively popular in Nigeria (only South Africa and Tanzania have Instagram ranked higher than Nigeria) so yet once again this does not seem to translate into a higher number of users per capita for Africa’s most populous country.
The following is a look at the number of active LinkedIn users in selected African countries in 2015.
Once again, we calculate the users per capita to determine the true penetration of the platform in our 9 countries. The users per 10,000 persons is as follows:
South Africa — 873 users/10,000 population
Nigeria — 137 users/10,000 population
Kenya — 261 users/10,000 population
Egypt — 208 users/10,000 population
Ghana — 286 users/10,000 population
Zambia — 137 users/10,000 population
Uganda — 109 users/10,000 population
Zimbabwe — 216 users/10,000 population
Tanzania — 77 users/10,000 population
· South Africa lives up to its high internet penetration by blowing everyone else out of the water
· There are decent showings by Egypt and Kenya, and impressive numbers from Ghana and Zimbabwe
· Tanzania ranks last far behind everyone else. This is the first time this has happened. We’ll look at where LinkedIn ranks among Tanzania’s most popular websites to see what this means.
· Nigeria doesn’t do too badly but once again as the country with the second highest internet penetration among the nine, it does seem to fall short of expectations (tied with Zambia and ranks behind South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Egypt)
Where does LinkedIn rank among the most popular websites in each of the 9 countries?
South Africa (14)
Egypt (Outside top 50 websites)
LinkedIn doesn’t even make it to the top 50 most popular websites in Egypt which makes the country’s performance fairly impressive. LinkedIn is most popular in South Africa which, together with its high internet penetration, is perhaps why it ranks so far ahead of the other countries.
LinkedIn is also fairly popular in Uganda but the country still finishes second last. The platform is not that popular in Tanzania so it’s poor showing is understandable. Still you do not see the kind of gap you’d expect between it and the other countries given its internet penetration is so far behind.
LinkedIn ranks comparatively well in Nigeria so we would have expected a higher usage per capita. Once again, Nigeria fails to show up.
The following is a list of active Twitter users in selected African countries.
Calculating for number of users per 10,000 persons, we get the following:
South Africa — 346 users/10,000 population
Nigeria — 66 users/10,000 population
Kenya — 150 users/10,000 population
Egypt — 229 users/10,000 population
Ghana — 107 users/10,000 population
Zambia — 34 users/10,000 population
Uganda — 33 users/10,000 population
Zimbabwe — 58 users/10,000 population
Tanzania — 31 users/10,000 population
Alexa national ranking of Twitter in the 9 countries was as follows:
South Africa (21)
· Twitter ranks highest nationally in Uganda. Despite that, Uganda has roughly the same number of users per capita as Tanzania and Zambia where Twitter is ranked lowest.
· Tanzania has the lowest number of users per capita but the numbers do not suggest as big a gap with Zambia, Uganda and Zimbabwe as ITU’s internet penetration data indicates
· Nigeria has the second highest website ranking for Twitter. However, at a per capita level, Twitter use in Nigeria is behind South Africa, Egypt, Kenya and Ghana. It is only marginally ahead of Zimbabwe which once again doesn’t seem commensurate with its high internet penetration as reported by the ITU.
· Once again, Egypt performs better than Nigeria and Kenya, both countries with a higher internet penetration.
Facebook is the 2nd most popular website in the world only behind ubiquitous web search portal Google.com. How many Facebook users are there in each of the 9 countries?
Like the other platforms we proceed to do a breakdown of the number of users per capita for the 9 countries. Results are as follows:
South Africa — 2,365 users/10,000 population
Nigeria — 768 users/10,000 population
Kenya — 1,107 users/10,000 population
Egypt — 2,951 users/10,000 population
Ghana — 1,094 users/10,000 population
Zambia — 802 users/10,000 population
Uganda — 461 users/10,000 population
Zimbabwe — 558 users/10,000 population
Tanzania — 524 users/10,000 population
The Alexa rank of Facebook in the 9 countries was as follows:
South Africa (4)
· Facebook is a top six website in all 9 countries ranging from 3rd in Egypt to 6th in Nigeria and Kenya. Unlike the other four websites we’ve looked at, there isn’t as much variation in national ranking. One would therefore expect that Facebook use should come closest to mirroring internet penetration.
· Egypt has the highest Facebook use and outperforms South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, countries that have a higher internet penetration.
· Nigeria maintains the trend of going contrary to expectations and only bests Uganda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.
· Tanzania has higher Facebook use than Uganda and nearly equals Zimbabwe.
We have prepared a summary table of the 9 countries.
We can further simplify the table to show what position each country occupies on each of the 5 websites.
· Tanzania’s internet use does not seem as far behind the rest of the continent as official data from the ITU suggests. Also, the fact that Tanzania has one of Africa’s highest per capita uses of as major a network as Instagram is of itself a pointer that internet access in Tanzania might not be as low as 5.4%. Even in the two websites that Tanzania comes last on our list (LinkedIn and Twitter), it is not as far behind the next country as its internet penetration would suggest.
· Nigeria’s case is the opposite of Tanzania’s. Internet penetration does not seem to be as far ahead of Ghana, Egypt and Kenya as the official data suggests. If anything, data from the five websites insinuates that Ghana, Egypt and Kenya may have higher internet use than Nigeria since in none of the websites does Nigeria have more users or activity per capita than the three countries.
· Egypt performs fairly well and comes out top in per capita use of Facebook and Instagram, the only other country other than South Africa to rank first on any website.
· South Africa lives up to its reputation as the country with the highest internet penetration. It comes in either first or second place in each of the five websites. The large gap between it and Nigeria on the 5 websites is yet another indictment on the reliability of Nigeria’s internet penetration data.
· Ghana’s official internet penetration (23.5%) places it at approximately the same level as Zambia (21%), Uganda (19.2%) and Zimbabwe (16.4%). Yet Ghana vastly outperforms the 3 countries on the 5 websites suggesting a likelihood that, in reality, there’s a substantial gap in internet penetration between it and the 3.
· Of the 9 countries, Uganda performs worst, coming last or second last on all 5 platforms. It’s hard to see how Uganda could not only have higher penetration than Tanzania but also have as large a gap as the ITU data suggests (Uganda’s penetration of 19.2% vs Tanzania’s 5.4%).
So are we saying the ITU data is wrong? No since we cannot be 100% sure of that. What we can say though is that individuals and organizations using ITU data need to be aware that there seem to be some discrepancies between official internet penetration data on one hand and user activity on some of the world’s largest websites.
Businesses that for instance have to decide on whether an ecommerce strategy is more viable in Uganda or Tanzania will notice that Uganda is not as obvious a choice as the ITU internet penetration data may suggest.
Of course, given its sheer size, Nigeria is a market every internet and ecommerce play in Africa should be looking at since it has by far the largest population on the continent. What the website stats do show though is that internet penetration in Nigeria is not as high above other African countries as the official internet penetration indicates. One possibility is that the same internet user is probably being counted multiple times by different service providers thus inadvertently inflating the county’s true internet penetration during aggregation.
We hope this write-up will help decision makers employ a more cautious approach when reading internet penetration data on African countries and perhaps eventually help improve how this information is collected.
Measuring the Information Society Report, 2016 ; Page 244–247; International Telecommunications Union; Retrieved 26 June 2017
Alexa Top Websites By Country ; Retrieved 7th June 2017
Infographic: Social Media in Africa ; Retrieved 7th June 2017
Wikimedia Traffic Analysis Report; Retrieved 7th June 2017
World Bank: GDP in Current US Dollars, 2016 ; Retrieved 20th July 2017
World Bank: Country Population 2015–2016 ; Retrieved 20th July 2017