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Global Intelligence for the Digital Transition

Urbanisation and mobile revolution are reshaping African media

The mobile revolution sweeping through Africa has remade how people across the continent communicate, and it will also remake media and journalism, especially as the population rapidly shifts to cities over the next 20 years.

PBS MediaShift looked at a new report on mobile developments and their impact in Africa.

The report from the Center for International Media Assistance and the National Endowment for Democracy was primarily focused on international media assistance and international broadcasters, such as the US government-backed Voice of America, but it contains insights for domestic African media as well.

Gabrielle Gauthey, executive vice president of the global telecommunications company Alcatel Lucent:

In 2000, you had about 5 million mobile phones in Africa. Today, we have about 500 million. In 2015, we expect it to be 800 million. Already, 20 to 30 percent of these phones are Internet-enabled. In 2015, it will be 80 percent.

In the report (available in full in PDF), Guy Berger, UNESCO’s director of freedom of expression and media development and a former newspaper editor, “predicted that mobile devices will surpass broadcast receivers as the continent’s primary medium”.

The mobile revolution in Africa is well documented, but the study also looked at another trend: rapid urbanisation. They believe this will transform the African media market. The report begins by saying:

Africa will become predominantly urban within 20 years, according to a United Nations report, with cities tripling in size and megacities developing throughout the continent. This suggests significant changes for Africans’ consumption of media in general and digital media in particular, with implications for Africa’s cities, politics, and civil society.

The pace and scale of the shift to the cities in sub-Saharan Africa is unlike anything else seen before in history. In a few decades, Africa will be predominantly urban.

Key media trends

With this growth of mobile, and the shift to cities, the study identified a few key trends that African media executives and publishers need to be aware of:

  • The “use of cellphones and other mobile devices, already widespread, are becoming a nearly universal platform, not only for telephony but also for audio and video information and entertainment”.
  • Fragmentation of demand driven by fewer people per television and radio receiver “enabling and encouraging more individually customized media consumption”.
  • Urbanisation driving fragmentation of supply. “Competing media sources are far more numerous in African cities than in rural areas.”

The “shift from radio and television receivers to … mobile telephones and other mobile digital devices” has led to “an entirely new and largely unrecognised class of independent media.”

The study suggests that current changes in patterns of media consumption in sub-Saharan Africa will accelerate with urbanisation, helping to reinforce the effect of mobile media adoption as city dwellers in Africa have a higher rate of mobile phone ownership than rural dwellers.

Urbanisation isn’t the only demographic shift that will affect media consumption. The report also noted that of the top 40 countries in terms of fertility rates, 38 are in Africa. This will lead to a dramatic increase in young Africans. The study believes that this will mean:

More people means larger media use, and that in turn translates into greater support for media of all kinds, from advertiser- and subscription-supported media to cellphone ownership. And more young people translates into greater embrace of new media technologies.

African audience on the move

The move to mobile media consumption is clear. For the first time in late 2011, the Voice of America found that more Africans were accessing its website via mobile phone rather than on computers. Broadcasting still has a larger reachReach1) unique users that visited the site over the course of the reporting period,…

The report believes that urbanisation and the rapid expansion of mobile handsets and mobile data will open up opportunities for independent media. Urbanisation will increase the number and competition amongst media outlets, while mobile will provide media with the ability to engage audiences that remain in rural areas.

The VOA, like other traditional broadcasters, has responded to these shifts by training hundreds of citizen journalists, increasing its use of social media and adding to its digital services targeting mobile phones and computers.

International and domestic news organisations will also have to compete with non-traditional sources of news and information. The report highlighted Google’s efforts to provide more information for sub-Saharan Africa via country-specific versions of Google News as well as information and education offerings via its video platform YouTube. Of course, the report notes that Google doesn’t need a broadcasting licence to offer its service in a country, like a radio or TV broadcaster might.

Digital information innovation is not just driven by large international companies like Google but increasingly a number of innovative projects and companies starting in Africa. The report highlights several, including the crowdsourced reporting platform, Ushahidi and also the virtual noticeboard service, Mimiboard. Mimiboard allows people to post information via the web or text messaging, and already media groups and NGOs have started using it, including the London-based news site The Zimbabwean, written by journalists in exile.

How media are responding

In response to the mobile revolution, new forms of media are being developed such as Interactive Voice Response (IVR). The free or inexpensive service allows people “to leave recorded messages, field questions and answers, and to provide market updates and weather reports.”

VOA is “aggressively pursuing IVR to complement streamingStreaming1) technology that permits continuous audio and video delivered to a computer…

Reinforcing one of the observations of the study, that content would become more individual with the rise of mobile, Ferri said that “deeply, deeply personal content is the sweet spot” on mobile. Research has found that dating, ring tones, horoscopes and the Bible and Koran are all popular forms of content, Ferri said, adding that jobs, entrepreneurship and English language instruction are also popular.

The digital transition is definitely happening in sub-Saharan Africa, and mobile technology is driving this transition. New forms of independent media and entirely new forms of media, such as IVR, are being developed to take advantage of this trend, but the study concludes that what we’ve seen thus far will only accelerate as the penetration of mobile phones with data connections increases in the next few years and more Africans move to cities. It’s a good time to review your digital editorial and revenue strategies to take advantage of these new opportunities to reach and serve audiences.

Article by Kevin Anderson

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