Understanding Internet in Africa: a talk with Indra De Lanerolle

04 Feb 2014



The ways Internet is developing – and becoming more and more relevant to mankind – are different all across the world. Sometimes radically different, and for sure Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the most peculiar areas.

In order to dig deeper into the African digital scenario, we had a talk with Indra De Lanerolle, academic researcher and media expert based in South Africa, which recently published a study on the Internet state of the art in Africa.

Here’s the interview.


– Hi Indra. First of all, a quick introduction: what is your background? 

I’m a Visiting Researcher at University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, one of the leading universities in South Africa. My background is in ‘traditional’ media. I began my career with a brief spell in newspapers and spent a decade at the BBC in London. I then worked in film, television, and communications in South Africa.

Even so, my digital life started early: I studied Artificial Intelligence at University at the beginning of the 1980s and got access to Arpanet – the precursor to the Internet. In the first decade of this century while running a media television and communications company I experimented with a number of Internet and mobile media. And in the last five years, Ive been able to spend more of my time researching how the Internet is and can transform communications.


– What drives you passion for digital in Africa?

My passion for exploring and understanding digital in Africa stems from four things:

    • I don’t think ‘digital’ is the same everywhere. It has and is developing differently in different places and for different reasons. People’s reasons for using these new technologies may vary. If we don’t get the African Internet into the conversation, we will misrepresent and misunderstand how the world is changing.
    • In many African countries communications (from transport to phone calls) are very expensive. At present, one of the most important things that most Internet users in Africa are benefitting from is much cheaper messaging for them, their friends and family.
    • In the US and western Europe, the Internet is disrupting and in some cases may, to some degree be displacing ‘traditional media’. In Africa its often the case that the Internet via mobile at least is reaching people who never read newspapers, and may have been reliant on unreliable and very limited television and radio. At the moment at least, I can be hopeful that the possibility exists to extend the information society to places and people it has not reached.
    • Its not only newspapers that don’t reach most people. Books don’t either and when they do they are unaffordable for most. While the rich can afford to debate the different pleasures and benefits afforded by print vs ebooks, for many in Africa, the Internet and digital devices offer the first possibility of access to the global knowledge.


– How did the South African Network Society project started?

I started the Network Society project with the help of Professor Anton Harber who is the head of the Journalism programme at University of Witwatersrand. We were lucky enough to receive a grant from the Open Society Foundation in South Africa and equally importantly were invite to partner with Research ICT Africa – a network of African communications researchers with funding from the Canadian IDRC to complete surveys of representative samples in 12 African countries.

We were able to collaborate with Research ICT Africa in developing a detailed Internet module of questions. We are also a member of the World Internet Project co-ordinated by Professor Jeff Cole at University of Southern California. This has enabled us to collaborate and share findings with researchers across the world – including in the US, Europe, China and Russia.


Internet Users South Africa


– Let’s focus on South Africa: what are the most relevant traits of Internet users, from a demographical point of view – and what are the overall figures?

One in three (34%) adults now (latest figures 2012) use the Internet. More people go online daily (22%) than read a newspaper everyday (17%).

Two out of three Internet users (66%) speak and African language at home, most of them have not been educated beyond school level and four out of ten live on less than R1,500 per month. Most (54%) leaners at school or college are now Internet users.

Almost three quarters of Internet users use their phones to connect, though only a minority are entirely dependent on mobiles to get online. Most users don’t own computers but use PCs to get Internet access via Internet Cafes or other public or shared facilities.

As per the reasons people say they first went online, the top five are:

    • To get information.
    • For study.
    • For work or business.
    • To look for a job.


Amongst non-users, half of those who don’t use the Internet say they don’t know what it is. Only 4% of them own a computer. One in five adults say they can’t easily read and write in English and almost all of these adults are not using the Internet. You can read more on this research.

I think the finding that has suprised many people here is that most users are now ordinary relatively low-income South Africans which also means that most Internet users are black. Perceptions of who is online are generally out of date – in line with a profile of users a few years ago but not an accurate reflection of today’s users.




– What is the importance of SA-based social media platforms, such as mobile IM apps Mxit?

A few years ago Mxit was the dominant social networking service in South Africa. Its great attraction was that it could run on any feature phone with WAP and was a very cheap substitute for SMS. As data charges have come down in cost, smart phone penetration has grown and as Facebook have introduced java applications that can run on feature phones, Mxit has been overtaken by Facebook. But it still remains a popular application.

Blackberry devices are still very popular in South Africa and Nigeria in a demographic that I think surprised the company because of the attraction of fixed price internet and the BBM instant messaging platform. The other popular messaging app in South Africa is WhatsApp. The Chinese WeChat has just launched in South Africa.


– You’ve been working on a research comparing Internet usage in different African countries. What are the most active areas, and what are the most relevant trends in your opinion?

Internet use varies greatly across the countries we have studied – from under 3% in Ethiopia to over 33% in South Africa. So there is no ‘typical’ African story. But some patterns are common: in all but one of the countries we have studied, most new users are connecting via their phones. Computer ownership still remains very low.


Internet Africa


– You lead the project “Internet and Mobile for Change”: what is the impact of mobile connectivity in Africa? How is it changing the digital habits in South Africa and in the whole Continent?

There is a substantial gap between what the Internet can be used for and what it is used for. When we look at available content, there is still not enough news, African language content, appropriate educational resources or even affordable and relevant African entertainment. Apart from the missed opportunity for African entrepreneurship, the lack of ‘indiginous’ content limits the Internet’s usefulness and relevance for many potential users.

In the Im4C project we are trying to assist South African civil society organisations in their strategic use of the internet for internal and external communication, data gathering and dissemination. As the numbers online grow, the opportunity to develop a wider range of African content and services should expand.


– Do you think mobile technologies are filling the digital divide between urban and rural areas? If so, are local platform playing a relevant role in the process?

Yes – but only in part. The first problem is mobile networks. In Ethiopia for example, there is little network coverage at all outside of urban areas. This was also true in Mozambique until relatively recently until the 3rd placed network operator began an agressive expansion in rural areas.

The second problem is still cost (of devices and of data) though they continue to fall in many but not all markets.

Third is the limitations of mobile phones. Mobile apps are great for instant messaging, social networking and for many other uses. But searching the web for information or trying to read educational material is difficult on a mobile phone, especially a feature phone or a low cost smart phone.

So mobile phones and networks are enabling people to connect, but in many cases its a rationed and limited form of connectivity.


– Thanks a lot, Indra. 

Guido Ghedin

Guido Ghedin

After his University years between Italy and California, today he deals with Market Research and Digital Scenario Analysis at Young Digitals. You can follow him on Twitter: @guido_ghedin.


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