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16 graphs that shed new light on the South African smartphone space

As we’ve pointed out time and time again, South Africa is a mobile country.

If you’re a regular reader then stats like the fact that the country has more SIM cards than people, with a mobile penetration of around 128%, are probably pretty familiar to you.

Dig a little deeper into the data though and some interesting stats, facts and figures start to emerge. A recent attempt to do exactly that saw online audience measurement tool Effective Measure, survey 5 000 plus desktop internet users focusing on a number of areas including smartphone usage, ownership and advertising.

The results of the survey, conducted in conjunction with the South African chapter of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, throw up some pretty interesting results. That said, some of the results are pretty much what you’d expect:

Take smartphone internet usage for instance. As you’d expect, the vast majority of South African desktop internet users have smartphones with over 80% using their smartphones to access the internet.

Smartphone South Africa

Given the level of income required to have a regular, stable desktop-based internet connection, it should hardly be surprising that the vast majority of South Africans who have one also have cellphone contracts.

That said, there’s a surprisingly high proportion of people with prepaid devices. The vast majority of smartphone owners also have a data plan, rather than relying on Wi-Fi alone.


The chief beneficiary of those contracts is Vodacom, which lays claim to around 51% of the smartphone market. The next closest, MTN, only holds around a third of the market. Given that the company has around 25-million overall subscribers in the country, it’s pretty obvious where the bulk of the companies’ respective customer bases lie.

Mobile operator share

The mobile operators are also clearly benefiting the increased amount of money people are spending on data. According to the survey, half of South African mobile subscribers are buying more than a gig of data a month. Interestingly, around a quarter say they have access to unlimited data. It’s unclear however whether that includes people who have unlimited internet packages at home that they tap into.

Mobile data

What phones are they consuming that data on? Well, for the first time it seems like more people are using Samsungs than BlackBerrys. It is worth bearing in mind however that BlackBerry use may still be higher among non-desktop internet users.

It is interesting however to see that Nokia still seems to outrank Apple among South African internet users.


All of that could change very quickly though. According to the survey, the average South African internet user spends less than three years with a single phone, while an increasingly large number say they intend replacing their devices in under a year.

Smartphone ownership

The kind of phone the people surveyed intend buying when it does come time to replace their devices suggest that things are only going to get better for Samsung.

Smartphone intentions

When it comes to the activities South Africans perform on their smartphones, email and instant messaging still win out. Given the relatively high cost of data in the country that should hardly be surprising. It also shoudln’t be all that surprising that social networking is next on the list, with most other activities coming in at well under five percent.

Smartphone activities

In the Instant Messaging space, Facebook’s US$16-billion purchase of WhatsApp means that it now holds the vast majority of the South African instant messaging market.

BBM is still holding fairly solid, although it seems likely that it will hold similar positions to Mxit and 2Go in the not-too-distant future.

Instant messaging

While the portion of the population making purchases on their smartphones remains relatively small, it is growing. Given the large number of mobile banking apps available in South Africa, it should hardly be surprising that the vast majority of purchases have to do with finance and banking. It is interesting to note however that more people purchase electronics on their mobile devices than book travel, especially given the dominant role the airlines play in the country’s ecommerce space.

Online advertising

Despite a growing smartphone user base, it seems that South African marketing agencies haven’t really pushed the available technology to its limits with SMS still winning out. A part of that may however be down the relatively fragmented nature of the smartphone (and more especially Android) space. SMS doesn’t discriminate by device, meaning that there’s a lot less that can go wrong. It also still commands a lot of attention, more so than a banner ad within an app or on a mobile site.

Mobile ads

Author | Stuart Thomas

Stuart Thomas
Stuart is the editor-in-chief of Engage Me Online. After pursuing an MA in South African literature, he spent five years reporting on the global technology scene. Intrigued by the intersection of technology and work, he joined Engage Me as the editor-in-chief. He is a passionate runner, and recently ran... More


  1. Happy_Ginger

    August 7, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    I would hardly call this accurate in representing “the vast majority South African internet users” It’s a little ridiculous to post reports like this claiming that they represent the majority of South Africans when the survey is only conducted by a mere 5000 entries. What about the other 54 million South Africans? #JustSaying

  2. Justin McCarthy

    August 9, 2014 at 4:58 pm

    The sample base of 5,000 is statistically significant. However there is absolutely no stratification. The base is desktop users – which naturally skews it to the apex 5% to7% of the entire population. While the desktop base is clearly stated upfront by EM and Memeburn, it isn’t contextualised. This is massively problematic for me and any statistician will confirm that context is critical when reviewing stats.

    The danger is (and I’ve witnessed this several times over with this very piece of research) is that media and individuals don’t represent the context, show the charts and leave the impression that it’s a national sample.
    Nothing could be further from the truth. Another instance of the digital-first brigade overhyping themselves in a desperation-tinged attempt at relevance. And I lay the responsibility for this squarely at the IAB (formerly the DMMA) and their data supplier EM – both of which are repeatedly guilty of quite shameless misrepresentation. It’s a pretty poor reflection on the industry at large and needs to be stamped out, most particularly by the tech media who swallow it up whole without interrogating it. Stuart Thomas is a senior tech journo – and he lets his profession down by not making more of the context of which I speak.

  3. Matt Willis

    October 8, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    Well said.
    I felt the entire set of info was sandbagged by the fact that the opening line was that “SA is a mobile country”…. and then the survey was conducted with desktop users.
    I also get annoyed with the term “smartphone” being used in stats without a proper definition because it is not standardised.

  4. Pingback: 9 graphs that will give you new insight into Africa’s thriving mobile landscape | memeburn

  5. Tubeka

    November 8, 2014 at 10:46 am

    This is still an incredibly inaccurate survey, especially as it was only done in an online space. The World Internet Report is more accurate, as it does online, paper and telephonic surveys. It also includes thesis research groups, etc.

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