Why aren’t more people using mobile internet in West Africa?

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A seller in Koba Guinea checks his phone while waiting for customers in his shop along the road
Internet access and connectivity are critical drivers of economic transformation in developing countries. © Photo credit: Vincent Tremeau /World Bank

Internet access has become a necessity of everyday life, with over half of the world’s population having access. Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed a sobering reality: internet access remains a rare commodity for many. This is particularly true in Sub-Saharan Africa, where a quarter of the population still lacks mobile broadband coverage, compared with only 7 percent globally. Even where coverage exists, the uptake of mobile internet services is low. 

Why? What is preventing more people from using the internet? Are some people less likely than others to adopt the technology?

We examined the main drivers and barriers to the adoption of mobile broadband internet among individuals in West Africa in a background paper for the World Development Report 2021: Data for Better Lives. West Africa is interesting because most countries in the subregion are at the bottom of the global ranking on internet penetration (though Côte d’Ivoire is closer to the global average). At the same time, mobile broadband coverage and technology ecosystems are growing rapidly. For instance, coverage in Senegal increased from 66 percent to 98 percent between 2015 and 2020.

 We focus on mobile broadband because most people in developing countries, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, access the internet through mobile phones rather than through fixed broadband internet.  In addition, West Africa is one of the poorest areas in the world, and digital transformation could help boost inclusive growth and reduce poverty. Because of the lack of data, the subregion has been one of the least-studied parts of the world regarding determinants of internet connectivity.

Our study takes advantage of the Harmonized Surveys of Household Living Conditions for seven West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) countries for 2018–19. We combine these data with coverage information on mobile broadband infrastructure to investigate internet adoption. In addition to demographic and socio-economic characteristics, we also study key variables linked to policies that affect the decisions of individuals, such as the price of mobile internet and access to electricity.

So what did we find? Across the subregion, two main constraints to mobile broadband adoption are related to affordability: the high price of mobile services and low purchasing power, as indicated by low household consumption.  These results resonate with the fact that the price of mobile data in the subregion is among the highest worldwide, adjusted to the cost of living. For instance, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) — the United Nations agency for ICT— data mobile broadband price basket Niger and Guinea-Bissau rank among the top 10 most expensive countries globally. Specifically, we find that about $2 a day extra in household consumption per capita would increase the probability of mobile internet adoption by 6.5 percentage points. A drop in the price of mobile internet services of 5.5 percentage points — as a share of average per capita household expenditure — would increase the likelihood of internet adoption by 2.4 percentage points. 

Demographic and socio-economic characteristics also matter for internet adoption, in line with previous research (see figure below). The results highlight gender-based and urban-rural adoption gaps: women have a lower probability (by 6 percentage points) of going online while living in an urban setting increases access by 4.5 percentage points.  Younger people (up to 40 years old) and better-educated individuals are more likely to adopt mobile broadband than people employed in the service sector.   Working in agriculture, however, decreases the likelihood. Language skills matter: individuals who can read and write in French — one of the main languages available online — are much more likely to access the internet through mobile phones.  Access to electricity is linked with increased adoption (stressing the relevance of investing in complementary infrastructure).

 

Main Determinants of Mobile Internet Adoption, West Africa, 2018–19

Graph on the main determinants of mobile internet adoption in West Africa from 2018–19

Note: Point estimates with 95 percent confidence intervals. The reference category for age is population 41 years or older. “Low skilled” refers to individuals with primary and secondary education; “high skilled” to those with tertiary education or higher. The reference category for skill levels corresponds to those with less than primary education. The reference category for the sector of employment is unemployed. For more information, please refer to related World Bank research

 

These results highlight that living in 3G+ coverage areas does not guarantee access to mobile internet. Mobile broadband coverage must be complemented by policies to address other critical barriers to close digital divides and attain a substantial increase in internet adoption — particularly those related to affordability  — and to target interventions to sociodemographic groups left behind. These policies include:

  • Expanding the availability of digital infrastructure, particularly in rural areas, and fostering the universal coverage of 3G mobile services
  •  Promoting price affordability of services by encouraging competition in the ICT sector, the regulation of spectrum allocation, and progressive pricing schemes, including affordable low-use data packages
  • Addressing barriers faced by women and other groups, including people working in agriculture, as well as the obstacles related to digital literacy and access to electricity
  • Coordinating across sectors for bundling with complementary services that enable the productive use of mobile broadband, including mobile money and digital platforms

Internet access and connectivity are key drivers of economic transformation in developing countries, particularly those in West Africa.  Implementing these policies can help close the digital divide and allow previously excluded socio-economic groups to reap the benefits of digital transformation.

This policy research is supported by the Digital Development Partnership (DDP), administered by the World Bank Group. DDP offers a platform for digital innovation and development financing, bringing public and private sector partners together to advance digital solutions and drive digital transformation in developing countries. Learn more: www.digitaldevelopmentpartnership.org

Authors

Rogelio Granguillhome Ochoa

Consultant, Poverty and Equity Global Practice

Samantha Lach

Consultant, Poverty and Equity Global Practice

Takaaki Masaki

Economist, Poverty and Equity Global Practice

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