October 9, 2018

Internet Connectivity Seen as Having Positive Impact on Life in Sub-Saharan Africa

But digital divides persist

Young Somali women look at a smartphone at Dadaab refugee complex, in northeast Kenya, on April 16. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)
Young Somali women look at a smartphone at Dadaab refugee complex, in northeast Kenya, on April 16. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

Chart showing Sub-Saharan African publics largely see growing internet connectivity as a positive.Sub-Saharan Africa has experienced dramatic gains in internet use in recent years. With this rapid growth in connectivity have come a host of potential problems, including fake news, political targeting and manipulation and financial scams, among others. Yet according to a new Pew Research Center analysis, most sub-Saharan Africans feel positively about the role the internet plays in their country. Large majorities say the increasing use of the internet has had a good influence on education in their country, and half or more say the same about the economy, personal relationships and politics.

Only when it comes to the issue of morality are sub-Saharan Africans somewhat more divided about the role the internet is playing. Across six major nations surveyed in the region, a median of 45% say the internet has had a positive impact on morality, while 39% say it is has been negative. These views vary substantially by country. For example, a majority of Nigerians (57%) believe the internet is having a good influence on morality, while more than half of Senegalese (54%) say the opposite.

Still, in some countries, evaluations of how the internet affects morality have improved since 2014. In Ghana today, 42% think that growing internet use has a positive effect on morality – up from 29% in 2014. Favorable assessments of the internet’s impact on economics and politics have risen even more over the same time period. For example, in 2017, around two-thirds of Nigerians (64%) said the increasing use of the internet had a positive influence on their country’s politics, compared with just 43% in 2014.

Chart showing that sub-Saharan internet users are more likely to say internet use has good influence on their country’s politics.Generally, internet users –meaning people who say they use the internet or own an internet-connected smartphone – are more positive about its influence. For example, in all countries but Tanzania, internet users are more likely to think the internet plays a positive role in the country’s politics.

In most countries, these gaps in attitudes between internet haves and have-nots persist whether looking at issues of morality, education, or even the economy. For instance, 72% of Ghanaian internet users see economic benefits stemming from greater connectivity, compared with 54% of non-users, and the pattern is the same in Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria.

These are among the major findings of a Pew Research Center survey conducted in six sub-Saharan African countries from Feb. 21 to April 28, 2017, among 6,795 respondents.

The survey also finds that sub-Saharan Africans primarily use the internet and their mobile phones for social and entertainment purposes, though many also use their mobile devices for sending and receiving payments. Still, people are more likely to engage in nearly all activities – even basic ones like texting – if they have smartphones, suggesting the emergence of a new digital divide based on phone type. The survey also highlights long-standing digital divides along demographic lines: Higher-income, more-educated and younger people are consistently more likely to use the internet, own a smartphone and engage in social networking.

Internet use increases across sub-Saharan Africa; share with a smartphone doubles

Chart showing that sub-Saharan Africa lags behind wealthier regions in terms of internet use.Line chart showing that internet use and smartphone ownership has increased across sub-Saharan Africa, but mobile phone ownership holds steady.

Globally, internet use is much more common in wealthier countries. The percentage of people who are online in each country is highly correlated with countries’ gross domestic product per capita (PPP). Regionally, internet use is lowest in sub-Saharan Africa, where a median of 41% across six countries use the internet. South Africa (59%) is the only country in the region where at least half the population is online.

Still, the gap in internet use between emerging and advanced economies has narrowed. Whereas internet use in many of the world’s advanced economies has plateaued in recent years, use in sub-Saharan Africa has notably increased. In 2014, 15% of sub-Saharan Africans owned a smartphone, compared with 33% who own one today. The number of people connected to the internet is likely to continue to rise, too; industry projections suggest that the smartphone adoption rate in sub-Saharan Africa will double by 2025.

Socializing is the most popular form of internet activity

Chart showing that for internet users in sub-Saharan Africa, staying in touch with family and friends is the most common activity.As people across the region get online, new opportunities emerge to use the internet for education, for business or to communicate with their social networks.

Sub-Saharan Africans are far-and-away most likely to use the internet for this last purpose: staying in touch with their family and friends. More than eight-in-ten internet users say they have used the internet for this purpose over the past year.

While less common than keeping in touch with the people in their lives, around half of online sub-Saharan Africans use the internet to get news and information about politics (median of 53% of internet users) or public or government services (51%). Another four-in-ten use it to access information about health and medicine (41%).

Chart showing that most social media users in sub-Saharan Africa post about entertainment, not religion or politics.

Comparatively few people have used the internet in the past year to look or apply for a job (26%) or to take an online class (14%). Even online shopping – a very common activity in the U.S. – remains somewhat limited in sub-Saharan Africa (17%).

On social media, too, most people are gravitating toward social activities over political, religious or commercial ones. Among the minority of sub-Saharan Africans who use social media (ranging from 43% in South Africa to 20% in Tanzania), more say they share their views on entertainment-related topics like music, movies and sports than say they post about politics, religion or products they enjoy.

On phones, focus is entertainment, mobile payments

Chart showing that mobile phone owners in sub-Saharan Africa tend toward social activities and mobile banking.Sub-Saharan Africans are more likely to use their mobile devices – whether smartphones or not – for social and entertainment purposes than for information-seeking or career- and commerce-related activities. Across the region, a majority of phone owners are using their devices to send text messages and to take pictures or video. Around four-in-ten phone owners also use their mobile phones to access social networking sites.

Another very popular phone-based activity is making or receiving payments. Around six-in-ten mobile phone owners have used their devices for this type of online banking over the past year, ranging from a high of 83% in Kenya (where M-Pesa is a dominant force) to a low of 34% in Nigeria.

Outside of banking, though, relatively few people use their phones for other career and commerce activities, like looking for or applying for jobs. Information-seeking activities are also less popular: Only around a third of mobile phone owners say they have used their mobile device over the past year to get news and information about politics, health or prices and products.

Phone type heavily shapes what people do on their devices

Chart showing that sub-Saharan Africans are more likely to send texts and use mobile payment services on smartphones.Social activities and sending and receiving money are some of the most common mobile phone-based activities because they can be done both from a basic phone – one that does not connect to the internet – or from a smartphone. But even though they can be done at equal rates, people with smartphones are much more likely to use their phones for these types of activities.

Take, for example, sending text messages. Those who have mobile devices that connect to the internet are much more likely to text their network than those with a basic phone. In Ghana, the difference is particularly stark: 79% of smartphone users have texted over the past year, compared with only a third of basic phone users.

Similarly, while mobile phones are a very important tool for helping poorer people gain access to needed financial services, people are much more likely to use their phones to make or receive payments if they are internet-enabled. For example, in South Africa, more than half of those who have smartphones use their phones for mobile payments, whereas only a quarter of those with basic phones do the same.

Smartphone users and basic phone users also differ in other key ways. People who are more educated, more affluent and younger are more likely to use smartphones than others. Smartphone users are also more likely to say the internet is having a positive impact on society.

Comparing phone ownership and technology use in sub-Saharan Africa with other regions

The interactive below provides data for levels of internet use, overall mobile phone ownership, smartphone ownership and social media use over time. All figures are based on total sample and include all data available for each year. You can sort the data by year or by country, and compare how the six sub-Saharan African countries highlighted in this report compare with other countries around the world.

Compare Africa’s rates of internet use, mobile phone ownership, smartphone ownership and social media use with other countries around the globe

% of adults who use the internet at least occasionally or own a smartphone
(Countries surveyed in Africa are highlighted in green)

Country 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
United States 84 84 86 88 89
Canada 90 91 91
France 75 81 87
Germany 85 85 87
Greece 60 66
Hungary 66 74
Italy 72 71 71
Netherlands 95 93
Poland 63 63 69 73 75
Spain 87 90 87
Sweden 93 92
United Kingdom 88 89 88
Russia 66 73 72 78
Australia 93 93 93
China 55 63 65 71
India 16 20 22 21 25
Indonesia 23 24 30 30
Japan 69 72 76
Philippines 34 42 40 56
South Korea 94 96
Vietnam 43 50 64
Israel 86 88
Jordan 47 47 67 80
Lebanon 57 62 66 83
Tunisia 40 42 44
Turkey 41 72 76
Ghana 26 21 25 39
Kenya 37 29 40 39
Nigeria 33 39 39 42
Senegal 34 28 31 46
South Africa 43 41 42 59
Tanzania 19 21 25
Argentina 68 62 71 78
Brazil 49 51 60 70
Chile 66 76 78 78
Colombia 57 75
Mexico 45 50 54 67
Peru 46 52 64
Venezuela 59 67 67 72

Note: “–” indicates data not available for this year. Internet use is based on individuals who report either using the internet occasionally or owning a smartphone. Percentages are based on total sample.
Source: Spring 2017 Global Attitudes Survey. Q63, Q64, Q65 & Q71. U.S. data from a Pew Research Center survey conducted Jan. 3-10, 2018. China data from Spring 2016 Global Attitudes Survey.

% of adults who use online social networking sites
(Countries surveyed in Africa are highlighted in green)

Country 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
United States 61 62 65 69 69
Canada 66 65 68
France 43 48 53
Germany 42 37 40
Greece 46 45
Hungary 53 56
Italy 47 53 48
Netherlands 70 61
Poland 43 39 46 50 46
Spain 57 63 59
Sweden 71 67
United Kingdom 58 61 60
Russia 57 62 61 66
Australia 65 70 69
China 26 37 41 60
India 8 13 14 14 20
Indonesia 19 21 26 26
Japan 36 43 39
Philippines 30 39 35 49
South Korea 51 69
Vietnam 34 38 53
Israel 65 68
Jordan 40 39 60 75
Lebanon 41 42 49 72
Tunisia 34 37 38
Turkey 32 62 63
Ghana 20 15 20 32
Kenya 28 26 32 30
Nigeria 28 32 33 35
Senegal 25 24 23 35
South Africa 27 30 31 43
Tanzania 15 17 20
Argentina 51 52 59 65
Brazil 36 42 48 53
Chile 50 66 66 63
Colombia 46 61
Mexico 35 41 44 53
Peru 39 42 53
Venezuela 49 59 59 59

Note: “–” indicates data not available for this year. Internet use is based on individuals who report either using the internet occasionally or owning a smartphone. Percentages are based on total sample.
Source: Spring 2017 Global Attitudes Survey. Q63, Q64, Q65 & Q71. U.S. data from a Pew Research Center survey conducted Jan. 3-10, 2018. China data from Spring 2016 Global Attitudes Survey.

% of adults who own a cellphone
(Countries surveyed in Africa are highlighted in green)

Country 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
United States 89 89 91 95 95
Canada 79 83 86 83
France 86 85 85 91 93
Germany 88 90 94 94 92
Greece 88 88 89 91
Hungary 89 91
Italy 92 93 95 89 90
Netherlands 96 96
Poland 84 84 88 89 91
Spain 91 91 96 97 97
Sweden 97
United Kingdom 92 92 92 93 93
Russia 94 96 96 96
Australia 91 94 95 94
China 95 97 97 97
India 77 81 78 72 73
Indonesia 78 78 77 75
Japan 85 87 89 92 92
Philippines 71 74 70 74
South Korea 100 100 100 100
Vietnam 82 86 92
Israel 92 93 97 97
Jordan 95 97 98 99
Lebanon 86 85 88 95
Tunisia 88 86 84
Turkey 87 95 96
Ghana 79 83 75 80
Kenya 82 82 82 80
Nigeria 78 89 89 80
Senegal 81 83 83 79
South Africa 91 89 89 91
Tanzania 73 73 75
Argentina 83 82 82 85
Brazil 80 87 86 86
Chile 91 93 93 93
Colombia 89 89
Mexico 63 74 72 75
Peru 77 78 84
Venezuela 88 83 77

Note: “–” indicates data not available for this year. Internet use is based on individuals who report either using the internet occasionally or owning a smartphone. Percentages are based on total sample.
Source: Spring 2017 Global Attitudes Survey. Q63, Q64, Q65 & Q71. U.S. data from a Pew Research Center survey conducted Jan. 3-10, 2018. China data from Spring 2016 Global Attitudes Survey.

% of adults who own a smartphone
(Countries surveyed in Africa are highlighted in green)

Country 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
United States 56 55 67 72 77
Canada 67 72 71
France 49 58 62
Germany 60 66 72
Greece 46 53
Hungary 49 61
Italy 60 63 67
Netherlands 79 80
Poland 21 29 41 52 57
Spain 71 79 79
Sweden 80 80
United Kingdom 68 72 72
Russia 23 33 45 59
Australia 77 79 82
China 37 55 58 68
India 12 14 17 18 22
Indonesia 11 15 21 27
Japan 39 55 59
Philippines 17 20 22 44
South Korea 88 94
Vietnam 24 35 53
Israel 74 83
Jordan 38 41 51 76
Lebanon 45 48 52 80
Tunisia 12 12 27
Turkey 17 59 69
Ghana 15 14 21 35
Kenya 19 15 26 30
Nigeria 19 27 28 32
Senegal 13 15 19 34
South Africa 33 34 37 51
Tanzania 8 11 13
Argentina 34 34 48 65
Brazil 15 24 41 54
Chile 39 58 65 72
Colombia 27 56
Mexico 21 28 35 42
Peru 16 25 41
Venezuela 31 39 45 38

Note: “–” indicates data not available for this year. Internet use is based on individuals who report either using the internet occasionally or owning a smartphone. Percentages are based on total sample.
Source: Spring 2017 Global Attitudes Survey. Q63, Q64, Q65 & Q71. U.S. data from a Pew Research Center survey conducted Jan. 3-10, 2018. China data from Spring 2016 Global Attitudes Survey.