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Despite Africa’s digital media boom, huge access gaps persist

Lack of internet access leaves many without information on economic opportunities, health, and education.

More and more Africans are using smartphones to access digital media and other content. Photo shows a passenger uses her smartphone after alighting from the Madaraka Express high speed train from Nairobi to Mombasa in 2017.
A high-speed rail passenger checks her smartphone in Mombasa, Kenya in 2017 (cc) Kemuntobear, via Wikimedia Commons.

On Aug. 21, 1995, Ghana became the first country in West Africa with a permanent internet connection. Within months, around 100 people in the country were shelling out more than $100 a month for a connection. Most people were shut out of this new technology, though. The internet was unaffordable for the average Ghanaian, as one local IT professional observed.

Almost 30 years later, millions of Ghanaians – and hundreds of millions across Africa – have regular access to digital media. They even carry it around in their pockets. Cheaper smartphones and faster download speeds have brought the internet and social media to mass consumers.

However, equality in digital media access remains an issue. Some groups like women, the poor, and those living in rural areas have fewer opportunities to get online. Africa’s digital divides are persistent. In many cases, the divides are growing. These inequalities could have far-reaching consequences for everything from political knowledge and civic engagement to economic opportunities.

Africa’s digital media boom

We tracked changes in digital media use across Africa by looking at survey data collected by Afrobarometer, an independent, pan-African research network. In nationally representative surveys conducted across 31 African countries about a decade ago (2014/2015), we found that just over one in five (21%) of respondents said they used the internet at least a few times a week to get news. 

In the latest surveys from those same countries (2021/2023), the share regularly using the internet nearly doubled, to 41%. Use of social media for news, via WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms, also rose substantially, from 21% to 45%.

The data for many countries show a remarkable jump in regular use of digital media for news. For example, just looking at regular use of social media sites for news, Cameroon has seen a 49-percentage-point increase in the last decade, with Gabon (45 points), Togo (39 points), Senegal (38 points), Côte d’Ivoire (37 points), and Mauritius (37 points) following a similar pattern. Some countries have seen much smaller gains, including Nigeria (up only 6 points in regular social media use for news), Mozambique (6 points), Uganda (8 points), and Namibia (8 points). Still, across the continent, social media and the internet are radically changing how Africans access news.

Change in regular digital media news consumption (percentage points) | 33 countries | 2014-2023

Digital media news consumption varies widely, another indication of the Africa's digital divide.
Respondents were asked: How often do you get news from the following sources: Internet? Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, or others? (Figure shows the change, in percentage points, between 2014/2015 and 2021/2023 in the proportion of respondents who say “every day” or “a few times a week.”)

Many expected the digital divide to fade

Early adopters of digital media in Africa tended to be very different from the rest of the population, as was the case elsewhere. By 2014/2015, even though access no longer cost hundreds or thousands of dollars a year, the internet and social media were still disproportionately tools for those with more disposable income. Younger Africans were more likely to access relatively new technologies than older groups. Those with more education had greater literacy skills to read websites and social media posts. Better networks privileged urban over rural populations. And, perhaps because of cultural norms or lack of available time, women were online far less than men.

As digital media use has become more widespread, we might expect these digital divides to shrink or even disappear. After all, regular use of digital media for news has increased, often very significantly, for all of these less-connected groups. Women have seen a 25-percentage-point increase in regular use of digital media for news, from 18% to 43%. For women over 35, that figure jumped 27 points, from 11% to 38%. Digital media access among rural dwellers is up 20 points, from 11% to 31%. And the jump was 22% for those with a primary-level education, up 18 points from the 4% in the 2014 survey.

That hasn’t happened in Africa

However, digital divides are not going away. And that’s because comparison groups are seeing equal, or even larger, increases in digital media use. For instance, the 25-point increase among women is about the same as the 26-point jump (26% to 52%) among men – that means the digital divide on gender lines remains virtually unchanged. We see a similar story for digital access among those with different levels of education. Digital media access among youth (<36) was up 25 points (31% to 56%), which is nearly the same as the 27-point increase among older citizens.

Along other lines, digital divides are actually larger. In 2014/2015, urban dwellers were 27 percentage points more likely to use digital media regularly for news than rural dwellers (38% vs. 11%). Today, that gap is actually 36 points. About 67% of urban dwellers regularly use digital media for news, a 36-point increase that far exceeds rural dwellers’ 27-point gain.

The gap has also widened for those with less education. What was a 36-point gap between those with a primary school education or less and those with higher education levels has jumped to a 47-point gap. This is because the 18-point increase in the lower education group is eclipsed by the 29-point increase in the higher education group (40% to 69%).

Gaps in regular digital news consumption | by urban-rural location, gender, age, and education | 31 countries | 2014-2023

Afrobarometer figure 2 -- Africa's digital divide, and percentage of people using digital media at least a few times a week.

Why these digital divides are persistent

If more and more Africans rely on the internet and social media to get their news, why aren’t digital divides fading away? Part of the answer might lie with the fact that different groups are positioned better to get connected. First, high data costs continue to limit access. Africans pay more for data than people in any other region of the world. Zimbabweans pay an average of $43.75 per 1 GB of data. Compare this to Israelis, who pay just 2 cents per gigabyte. Although there is wide variation between countries – Malawians currently pay the least for data on the continent, at 38 cents/GB, on average – costs are still often prohibitive. 

Second, mobile broadband access is increasing rapidly across the continent, with 75% of the population living in areas with 3G coverage in 2019. But rural populations remain underserved, especially by faster 4G coverage. In 2022, only 22% of Chadians, 20% of Ethiopians, and 12% of Mauritanians lived in areas with 4G coverage.

A final point: These barriers tend to disproportionately affect women, who have less disposable income and lower levels of formal education. And women often simply have less time to get online, due to extra burdens related to childcare and household duties. In many single-device households, men are more likely to claim responsibility over the phone, which creates large gender gaps in mobile access in most countries.

Why these digital divides matter

The good news is that Africa’s divides may eventually start to shrink. Data and devices continue to become more accessible. Many rural areas across the continent are getting faster connection speeds. And developers of smartphones and apps are working to improve accessibility to populations with limited literacy.

However, as long as digital divides persist, they will have real consequences for Africans. Information related to health, economic opportunities, and education is increasingly available online. That means people without internet access will not be able to take advantage of public and private services that could increase their living standards. 

And while analysts are rightfully concerned about the potential for digital platforms to spread both misinformation and disinformation, citizens can also access information online to make informed electoral decisions and hold government officials accountable. Making policy changes to reduce digital divides will therefore be necessary to reduce economic, social, and political inequalities across the continent.

Jeffrey Conroy-Krutz is an associate professor at Michigan State University and editor of the Afrobarometer Working Papers series.

Komi Amewunou is the assistant editor at Afrobarometer.

Kelechi Amakoh is a data analyst for Afrobarometer and a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at Michigan State University.

Editors’ note: Change in regular digital media news consumption figure updated May 7, 2024.