Africa's most popular apps & the insights they reveal

Fascinating themes emerge from a study of the top Android apps in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, and Tanzania

Afridigest provides ideas & analysis for startup founders, operators, and investors across Africa and beyond. This post uses data from the Google Play Store to profile internet users in sub-Saharan Africa and examine emergent themes. If you like this post, tap the heart icon here, share it, and let me know by replying here or via Twitter: @eajene. New here? Subscribe to get posts like this delivered straight to your inbox every week.

In today's digital economy, apps are widespread. Ten years after Apple trademarked the phrase, there is indeed an app for (almost) everything. Consequently, the study of app usage patterns can offer many insights.

Particularly insightful is country-level analysis — ‘Show me a country's most popular apps, and I'll show you its soul,’ one could say. For instance, at the start of the month on June 1st, India's most popular free Android app was Remove China Apps (which helps users do as its name suggests).

The app’s surprising popularity reflects growing anti-Chinese sentiment in India, stemming from a long-standing border dispute. (Google has since removed the app from the Play Store after it reached more than 5 million downloads.)

Coincidentally, China offers another striking example of the insights that studying a country’s app usage patterns can offer into its culture. In the country, 10 of the top 20 apps are VPN-related, a fact that underscores the impact of China's ‘Great Firewall’ and reflects the control the state exerts in the country.

While the previous examples from the East are instructive, it’s worthwhile to focus on app usage patterns in sub-Saharan Africa given that the region has the world’s fastest-growing mobile economy. And with Android enjoying over 50% market share on the continent, it’s sensible to concentrate on Android apps.

So, to that end, please see the snapshot below of the top 20 free Google Play apps in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, and Tanzania. (The US and UK counterparts are included for comparison, and the data is from mobile analytics firm App Annie.)

Three Overarching Themes:

#1 Whatsapp is king across sub-Saharan Africa

  • In all five African countries surveyed, Whatsapp, the Facebook-owned messaging service, is #1. Notably, the app isn’t among the top 10 in the US and it reaches only #4 in the UK. Unlike in the West where it’s common to use a mix of multiple social platforms, e.g., Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, and SMS, for large swathes of the population in sub-Saharan Africa (where internet connections are less reliable and more dear) WhatsApp is the de facto and sole social media/communications tool.

#2 African smartphone users are quite data-conscious

  • In the five African countries surveyed, either Shareit or Xender, apps that allow users to transfer files without using data, appear in the top 10. Moreover, in all of the five countries, Opera Mini, the browser whose core value proposition is “substantial data savings” appears in the top 20—and in the top 7 in three out of the five countries. In addition, Facebook Lite, a basic version of the standard app that strips out data-intensive features, is a top 3 app across the board, except in South Africa. This sensitivity to internet data is no surprise given that Africans pay the highest rates for mobile internet in the world, proportional to income. Across the continent, 1GB of data costs on average 7% of users’ average monthly salary—the equivalent of $373 for Americans.

#3 Social apps are universal

  • Much ballyhooed Zoom, a top 3 app in the US and #1 in the UK, is a top 5 app in four out of the five African countries surveyed — with Tanzania as the sole outlier. Similarly, Snapchat, the app loved by millennials in the West, is also popular in Africa—reaching the top 15 in all five countries and the top 5 in four of the five countries. Given that Africa has the world’s youngest population (e.g., 60% of the continent is under the age 25), perhaps it's not surprising that youth-oriented apps find success. In the same vein, TikTok, the first app from China to attract a global audience, is the #1 or #2 app in the US and UK and enjoys top 20 status across all five African countries selected, with a particularly strong showing in South Africa where it was the 4th most popular app.

Other themes worth highlighting:

  • Facebook is remarkably dominant in Tanzania—the top four apps in the country are all owned by the company, and other Facebook-owned properties show up at #10 and #17.

  • Opera News, the news app from the company behind the Opera Mini browser, is quite popular, reaching the top 15 everywhere except in South Africa.

  • Jumia, the first Africa-focused startup to list on a major global exchange, has a core circle of strength in Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana where it achieved top 15 status.

  • Whatsapp Business, the SME-oriented version of the popular platform, is unpopular in the US and UK but is a top 20 app in Nigeria, Ghana, and Tanzania (which have high levels of informality).

Country-Specific Observations:

  • South Africans don’t mind spending online (& have money to do so). Whether it’s ordering from Mr. D Food, Uber Eats and Debonairs Pizza, or shopping with Wish, Takealot, and Zando, mobile commerce is very popular in the country—six of the top 20 apps are in this category, more than in any other country.

  • Nigerians love to socialize online. More than half of the top 20 apps in the country are related to communications or social media—the most across the countries surveyed. And Nigeria is the only country, including the US and UK, where Twitter is a top 20 app. (Remember Jack Dorsey’s visit?)

  • Kenyans enjoy consuming video content online. Kenya is the only country where both TikTok and TikTok Lite appear in the top 20. And along with Viusasa, Vskit, and Showmax, Kenya has the most video-oriented apps in the top 20.

  • MTN is dominant in Ghana. Two of Ghana’s top 15 apps are from MTN (MyMTN and Ayoba) while no other country has two telco apps among the twenty most popular. (MTN enjoys 56% market share in Ghana, the highest across its markets.)

  • Tanzanians consume a diverse assortment of content. Tanzania is the only market where Youtube/Youtube Go is one of the 20 most popular apps, it is one of only two markets where a music streaming offering is in the top 20 (Boomplay), and one of only two markets where a game is among the top 20 (Subway Princess Runner). From Youtube Go to Boomplay to Subway Princess Runner to Swahili video content app AzamTV Max to Likee, Tanzania showed the highest content diversity among the top 20 apps.

From the analysis above it’s clear that analyzing a country’s app usage patterns can uncover hidden insights about consumers. Applied to sub-Saharan Africa, it becomes evident that today’s internet user in the region primarily goes online to communicate with friends and family (likely with Whatsapp or another Facebook product). And while high relative data costs appear to be a key concern, he/she navigates the environment by utilizing apps designed to thrive in such an environment like Xender and Shareit and ‘lite’ or basic versions of common apps (e.g., Opera Mini, Facebook Lite, Youtube Go, TikTok Lite).

As more and more of the world’s economy goes digital, and more and more Africans come online, ventures — both on the continent and abroad — that target online audiences in sub-Saharan Africa would do well to study users' changing behavioral patterns and the underlying insights they reveal.

(The consultancy, Africreate, can help.)

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