The African region has witnessed continued growth, albeit slow, in most areas of ICT infrastructure, access and use over the last four years.
This is one of the key takeaways from an International Telecommunication Union (ITU) report titled: “Digital trends in Africa 2021”, which examines ICT adoption on the continent since the last World Telecommunication Development Conference in 2017.
The report provides an overview of ICT trends and developments in Africa from 2017 to 2020, with the objective to be a reference for ITU-member states in reviewing progress and identifying ICT development priorities on the continent.
Africa’s ICT infrastructure challenges have long been noted, and more so during the COVID-19 pandemic. The outbreak of the coronavirus saw millions of people rely on ICT to work, study, care for others and keep in touch with loved ones.
For Africa, COVID-19 exposed weaknesses in ICT infrastructure, with UNESCO’s regional director for Southern Africa, Dr Huber Gijzen, previously stating the continent needs to accelerate investment in this key resource.
In addition, ITU secretary-general Houlin Zhao has advocated for investment in ICT infrastructure, noting that Africa will require an estimated $100 billion to bring everybody online by 2030.
The ITU report states ICT infrastructure is at the heart of historical transformation. This, it says, is mainly because it is the predominant enabler – along with fit-for-purpose policy – of future competitiveness and prosperity of Africa.
“Robust infrastructure, on which emerging technologies ride, can help meet some of the continent’s most pressing challenges,” states the report. “It is important not to lose sight of the fact that improving ICT infrastructure is more than a goal for operators and consumers; far more than simply facilitating mobile and broadband connections.
“Improving ICT infrastructure allows for global and local supply chain integration, the innovative use of critical health information, the opportunity for citizens to improve their options in the workforce, enables students to gain skill sets previously unavailable to them, among many more positive externalities that are changing the course of history.”
The rise of mobile
In terms of mobile cellular coverage, the ITU estimates that 88.4% of the African population lives within reach of a mobile cellular signal.
When looking at 3G, it estimates that just over 77% of the population is now within reach of a 3G signal, while 44.3% of the population is within reach of long-term evolution mobile broadband.
The report highlights that the African mobile market is diverse, with mobile cellular subscriptions far in excess of 100 per 100 inhabitants in 12 out of 44 ITU-member states.
“Twenty countries have subscription rates per 100 inhabitants below the African average of 82.3, while 12 other countries have less than 50 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants. In most countries, mobile cellular subscription rates have increased over the time-period 2015-2019.”
According to the report, African active mobile broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants reached 33.1 in 2019, trailing far behind the world average of 75 per 100 inhabitants.
Seven African nations − South Africa, Ghana, Gabon, Seychelles, Botswana, Mauritius and Cabo Verde − had active mobile broadband subscription rates above the world average, it states.
On the other hand, almost half of all countries for which data was available had subscription rates below the African average of 33.1 per 100 inhabitants.
Active mobile broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants in Africa
On fixed broadband, the report shows Africa has one of the lowest fixed broadband subscription rates when compared to other regions.
The ITU report has estimated a fixed broadband subscription rate of 0.5 per 100 inhabitants for Africa in 2020, which is well below the global average of 15.2 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants.
“Within the region, two-thirds of the countries slightly increased their fixed broadband subscription rates in the period 2018-2019. Below one-third of countries show declining subscription rates for the same period.
“Seychelles and Mauritius are two significant outliers, with fixed broadband subscription rates per 100 inhabitants well above the world average, recording sizable increases for the period 2018-2019.”
In the area of available international bandwidth, the report notes Africa lags far behind other regions at the aggregate and individual levels.
“Although the total international bandwidth across the region has more than doubled over the last four years from 5Tbit/s in 2017 to 11Tbit/s in 2020, it represents only 1.5% of the total world international bandwidth. At the individual user level, there were 30.8kbit/s per Internet users in the Africa region in 2019, compared with 131.3kbit/s per Internet user globally.”
Fixed broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants in Africa
ITU data highlights that 14.3% of households in Africa had Internet access by the end of 2019.
Moreover, only 6.3% of rural households had access to the Internet in 2019, compared with 28% of urban households, notes the report.
Furthermore, the proportion of individuals using the Internet in 2019 totalled 28.6% in Africa and 51.4% globally, highlighting the need to bring more people in Africa online.
“In four countries − Mauritius, Cabo Verde, Seychelles and South Africa − the proportion of individual Internet users was above the world average of 51.4%. In most countries, individual Internet use is below 30%.
“To ensure access to meaningful and affordable connectivity can be achieved across the Africa region, a number of impediments have to be overcome. These include improvements to international connectivity, domestic connectivity / access to backbone networks, as well as the last mile.
“This requires developing Internet exchange points to ensure connectivity is efficient, and content is routed domestically. It also requires the building of data centres to ensure content can be stored locally, and ensuring access to ancillary or analogue complements, such as affordable electricity.”
Meanwhile, in the 15- to 24-year-old age group, 39.6% used the Internet in 2019, which is higher than the regional average, yet significantly lower than the world average of 69%.
The percentage of individuals using the Internet in Africa
The report notes there is still a significant gender gap in the Africa region, one of the largest globally.
While, on average, 20% of women and 37% of men used the Internet in the region in 2019, globally 48.3% of women and 55.2% of men used the Internet that year.
“Based on the limited data available for selected countries, the gender divide is significant, with percentage differences of up to 14% in Guinea. This divide is least pronounced in Cabo Verde and Zambia.”
The percentage of individuals using the Internet by gender in Africa