It is hard to find anything that offers so much hope and potential as increased internet access across Africa. The internet offers a whole new world of information, ideas, tools, and ways of connecting people as well as providing sources of entertainment and distractions, certainly with silly kittens and camels galore. Importantly, it offers revolutionising ways of accessing and delivering services, including vital ones such as finance. Recent discussions with jua kali, or informal sector producers in Kenya, showed enormous potential to diversify their product lines provided they had access to and knowledge of the internet. Enabling people at the bottom of the pyramid, who currently have little or limited internet access, to make use of all of this will be life changing.
Or so we like to think. In reality, the picture is more complex. While internet access itself may be binary, just like the data it holds, the users are intricate, inconsistent and often contradictory human beings. Indeed, internet participation cannot be reduced to zeros and ones. A paper by Kantar Public, presented at the African ITS Conference in Accra in March 2016, sheds light on the complexity of internet engagement and the factors that underpin it. The paper, authored by Nicola Marsh, is based on analysis of a global annual study of internet use conducted by Kantar TNS in a wide range of countries. This particular piece of analysis focuses on Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.
Gender is a key part of this picture. Fewer women than men use the internet in most African countries, and these four countries are no exception. By way of example, 19% of men in Ghana have access to the internet, whereas the figure for women is a measly 9%. In South Africa, which has the highest level of internet access among the four countries, 41% of men use the internet whereas only 29% of women do so. Consequently the door to the digital world remains shut for many women.
Figure 1. Internet access by country and sex, 2012
Source: Research In Africa, 2012
The KP paper analysed different levels of internet engagement and factors that underpin different types of usage. First, an overall “internet participation” composite score was created based on a bunch of common online activities and their frequency. The findings show that greater access for women, or indeed disadvantaged men, does not imply online engagement. In fact, the countries with higher levels of access tend to have lower levels of participation. Within the countries, men consistently have higher levels of engagement than women.
Figure 2. Mean score of internet participation by country and sex, 2015
Source: Kantar TNS Connected Life Survey, 2015
Second, this overall score was then broken down into three main factors or categories of usage, capturing some of the nuance of internet engagement. The categories are:
- Popular activities. This includes instant messaging, social networking, uploading photos, playing games, reading news/sports/weather.
- Sophisticated activities. This includes mobile payments, streaming/downloading shows/movies, streaming music/radio, watching videos, internet banking
- Text heavy activities. This includes blogging, visiting blogs/forums, and emails.
The gender gap is further highlighted when looking at these different categories of internet usage, with sophisticated activities having the greatest gap.
Other factors in addition to gender that lead to greater internet participation overall are younger age, better education, and higher socio-economic group. However, different life stages, defined as student status, marital status and having kids, have no consistent impact on online participation across the four countries.
Lower education and social class have less of an impact on the popular online activities. If we want to get women and people who are less well educated to participate more, the starting point should arguably therefore be data light services.
These findings show that as online participation increases and people lower down the pyramid gain access, proportionately more people engage with the internet in lighter ways. Women are often among those who are late to join the online party. Indeed, across the four countries the gender gap for internet participation is inversely related to the level of internet access. For example, in South Africa a more similar proportion of men and women access the internet, but among those who are online, women have a lower level of participation than men. In contrast, in Ghana where the gender gap in access is large, the men and women who do have access have more similar levels of engagement.
In sum, this analysis makes it clear that for the internet to be a truly useful tool for disadvantaged groups of people, much more ought to be done to get women in particular to develop more technical skills and online literacy, as well as solving other affordability and access issues. If not, many of the most vulnerable people will remain excluded from the digital possibilities including access to services, information, networks and ideas. While a few tentative steps online might mean people tumble into Facebook and other social networks, it is essential they don’t just get sucked into the whirlpool of singing dogs, snoring camels and other people’s dinner from which they may or may not emerge. Rather, people need to engage with more sophisticated online activities if they are to click their way onwards and upwards. A snoring camel ain’t gonna help with that.
The full version of the paper is available on request.
 The analysis was based on the data from the annual, multi-country survey conducted by Kantar TNS, called “Connected Life”. The survey covers technology and internet behaviours amongst internet users. All those interviewed use the internet at least once a week, and the sample for each country is weighted to be nationally representative of weekly internet users aged 16+. The data was collected between June and August 2015.
 Source: Research In Africa, Gillwald et al (2012), http://www.researchictafrica.net
 Note that in Kenya mobile payments are commonly done using Mpesa, but the level of penetration of mobile money is much lower in other countries.