Journeys of Connectivity: How People in Sub-Saharan Africa Come Online

Each month, across Sub-Saharan Africa, more than 95 million people access Facebook, with 97% on mobile.1 And as the number of people on Facebook in the region continues to grow, we wanted to better understand people’s journeys of connectivity.

Facebook IQ commissioned D3 Systems to conduct an in-person survey among a nationally representative sample of 6,089 people ages 18+ (along with in-depth interviews and ethnographies) across three of the most populous Sub-Saharan markets: Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.

Most are now connected, but each journey is unique

Our research revealed that nearly two-thirds (63%) of people surveyed across Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa are connected (they have used the internet in the past two years). And smartphones are the primary way people connect.

While the majority of people we surveyed are connected, many have yet to achieve a state in which they can access the internet when and how they want. Some have been using the internet for so long, and with such intensity, that they don’t give it a second thought. At the same time, we met many people who buy mobile data on a daily basis and see the data as a treasured commodity that they will strategically ration to be connected when it matters most to them.


Millennials are driving the online movement

Among people surveyed across Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, Millennials are by far the most connected generation, accounting for 76% of connected people.


When it comes to being connected, the gender imbalance that is so striking among older generations seems to be shrinking among younger generations. Facebook data reveals that, among people who have just joined the platform, male Gen Xers and Boomers are 2.37x more likely than women to be online. But for Millennials, the difference shrinks to 1.48x.3 When it comes to the average number of messages someone sends on Messenger in Sub-Saharan Africa, each gender’s levels of engagement are essentially equal.4


Communication drives people to connect

Perhaps another indicator that the internet is becoming more inclusive is that more than 1 in 4 people surveyed who are unconnected plan on getting online in the next year.

For many, the journey to getting an internet connection happens the same way people are introduced to the internet in the first place. The people they are close to are often both the reason and the way they come online.


Connectivity can be challenging

The story of connectivity in Sub-Saharan Africa is, for many, also a story of challenges, compromises and clever workarounds.

For example, to manage the cost of data, many people buy daily scratch cards. 100 Kenyan shillings will get you 80MB of data. It can also buy you three local bus rides in Nairobi. Here, the trade-off starts to become clear: Will I ride the bus to work … or buy my mobile data and walk?

People go to great lengths to make sure they are connected when they need to be.



Connected people are committed to staying so

The challenges of staying connected are real—and so is connected people’s commitment to being online. 77% access the internet daily, and 96% do so monthly.

Being online is so important to people that many are willing to make sacrifices to maintain their connectivity. In fact, 20% of the connected people we surveyed say they’d give up the convenience of public transportation and 27% would stop eating out to remain connected.

Why? For many, the financial benefits of being connected can be life-changing. Whether it’s the Uber driver who says his job simply wouldn’t exist without the internet or the chef who got a micro-loan through a mobile app so he could start selling donuts as a side business, connectivity is igniting entrepreneurial spirits.


Connectivity is also about access—to people, information and vital services. And it’s bringing new forms of entertainment to the fore, as evidenced by people’s enthusiasm for mobile video.


Connectivity is unlocking a world of new opportunities

Many connected people in the three Sub-Saharan markets we surveyed ultimately have similar relationships with the internet (and their mobile devices) as those in mobile markets with longstanding connectivity. And with 90% of feature phone users across Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa planning to upgrade to a smartphone in the next two years, the future promises to bring even closer alignment.5

People’s mobile-first connectivity also seems to be producing a new type of shopper journey. Connected people express an openness to engaging with ads across a range of new platforms: 77% in mobile web browsers, 68% in messaging apps and 70% in social media apps. 38% even say they do all their product research in mobile apps. But while flexible on platform, many people value local products and localized marketing.


In many ways, the evolving story of Sub-Saharan connectivity parallels that of markets with much more longstanding connectivity. But the region’s recent and radical approach towards innovation (evidenced by their leapfrogging “developed” markets in the arenas of mobile-centricity, branchless banking and mobile payments) hints at a unique advantage. And local innovation in emerging markets only seems to be accelerating.

For a glimpse into the future, you may well find inspiration in Sub-Saharan Africa.


What it means for marketers

The journey of connectivity for marketers is just getting started. Sub-Saharan Africa has one of the world’s youngest populations, and, as with many emerging markets, this is a region on the rise. But creating connections that count will mean marketers may have to rethink many of their familiar frameworks—starting, for example, with how to build for people whose phone’s default state is “data off.”

Localize for impact: While mobile is clearly a unifier across the region, Sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the most culturally diverse places on earth. Take technological, cultural and linguistic diversity into account to create experiences that resonate. Consider partnering with local entrepreneurs to build solutions from the ground up, letting local ingenuity be your guide.

Matter to Millennials: Millennials are the future, and they’re driving the online and mobile movement. They prove their dedication to connectivity through the daily trade-offs they make so they can be online when it matters most. They are powerful evangelists for the internet and could play the same role for brands that understand their needs and preferences.

Deliver experiences and efficiency: People love video, but the data can be costly. Offer quality content and a compelling reason to watch. Consider lighter-weight formats for when people don’t have WiFi access, and explore how messaging can streamline interactions—whether that’s through creatively using WhatsApp or building a Messenger bot.


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Connecting with Sub-Saharan Africa

Connecting with Kenyans

Connecting with Nigerians

Connecting with South Africans



1. Facebook data, Dec 2016.
2. Facebook data for people ages 18+ who were confirmed new users between Aug 30-Sep 5, 2016 in AO, BF, BI, BJ, BW, CD, CF, CG, CI, CM, CV, DJ, ER, ET, GA, GH, GM, GN, GQ, GW, KE, KM, LR, LS, MG, ML, MR, MU, MW, MZ, NA, NE, NG, RE, RW, SC, SD, SH, SL, SN, SO, SS, ST, SZ, TD, TG, TZ, UG, YT, ZA, ZM, ZW (accessed Sep 2016).
3. Facebook data for people ages 18+ in KE, NG, ZA, Aug 2016 (accessed Sep 2016).
Facebook data, Feb 2017.
4. “Multimarket Consumer Survey” by GfK (Facebook-commissioned study of over 18,000 people across AE, BE, DE, FR, EG, ES, IT, IL, KE, NG, NL, NO, PL, SA, SE, TR, UK, ZA), Dec 2015.
Source unless otherwise specified: “Journeys to Connectivity” by D3 Systems (Facebook-commissioned study of nationally representative sample of 6,089 people ages 18+ in KE, NG and ZA), Nov 2016.