The top smartphone apps in Africa
An examination of the top Google Play apps across multiple African markets helps uncover hidden insights & aids market understanding.
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This article analyzes Google Play Store data to help readers better understand consumers across sub-Saharan Africa.
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While the African continent is often discussed as a single united entity, it's important to remember that markets are far from monolithic. One relatively staid way to develop an understanding of African consumers across markets is to look at summary market statistics. But a more engaging and somewhat uncommon way to glean insights into consumer behavior & preferences is to explore app analytics data.
In June 2020 the article ‘Africa's most popular apps & the insights they reveal’ did just that. In it, I extracted insights about internet users across the African continent based on an examination of Google Play store leaderboards compiled by mobile analytics firm App Annie (now Data.ai).
Two years later, it's worthwhile to revisit that analysis and see what’s changed, what’s stayed the same, and what we can learn.
The return to normalcy. The previous analysis was conducted in June 2020 in the throes of the pandemic; at that time Zoom was a top-three app in the US and the UK and a top-five app in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, and Ghana. Zoom’s share price reached an all-time high closing price of $568.34 on October 19, 2020, and two years later, the stock is down to ~$109. Similarly, the Zoom app has fallen to 19th place on the US free app leaderboard and it no longer ranks among the top 20 free apps in the UK or in any African country.
MSMEs are big business. Whatsapp Business, the messaging app designed for small business owners, is increasingly important as a commerce-enabling tool across African markets (which are characterized by, among other things, high levels of informality). The app is now the top free Play Store app in Morocco, the #2 app in Ghana, and the #6 app in Nigeria. Even in South Africa, which has among the lowest levels of informality on the continent according to researchers, WhatsApp Business is now among the top twenty apps.
Global trends are African trends, too. Across all African countries examined in the 2020 analysis, WhatsApp held the #1 ranking. Two years later the Meta/Facebook-owned messaging service, while still laying claim to a dominant position, no longer reigns absolutely. Social video-sharing app TikTok, which reached 1 billion global MAUs in about half the time it took WhatsApp to achieve the same feat, is now more popular than WhatsApp in Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, and Egypt.
The current reality
Today, ten apps are extremely popular across the African markets examined: South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Egypt, and Morocco. These include:
global social media apps (i.e., TikTok, Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram),
messaging apps (i.e., Whatsapp, WhatsApp Business, and Telegram),
NYSE-listed Jumia’s e-commerce app, and
apps addressing issues with specific relevance to African markets (i.e., caller ID and spam call blocking app Truecaller and offline file transfer app Xender).
Below is a chart displaying the ranking of these ten apps on their respective country’s top-twenty leaderboard. (A red encircled ‘X’ appears for apps that are not ranked among the top twenty free Google Play Store apps in their country.)
The snapshot of the top 20 free Google Play apps in the six African countries surveyed is below. (The US and UK leaderboards are included for comparison.)
According to various researchers, the main use of smartphones is to stay in touch and communicate with friends, family, and colleagues, and as such it’s not surprising that social media & communications apps like TikTok, WhatsApp, and Snapchat are popular both in the West and across African markets.
Smartphones help us meet a variety of other needs, however, and exploring how they are used in other markets is revelatory.
For example, one can say, speaking quite broadly, that a primary goal of the average Android user in the US is to entertain him/herself as the category containing the largest number of apps in America—six of the top twenty—is gaming. Similarly, five of the top 20 free Android apps in the UK are gaming apps. And in North Africa, the picture is similar; it can be said that mobile gaming is rather important to the average Egyptian and Moroccan Android user today.
But in sub-Saharan Africa, things are quite different. Instead of games, the goal of the average Nigerian Android user seems to be to access financial services. And the same is true of Kenyans (although there’s a particular focus on access to loans in the country). Notably, financial services apps make up a quarter of the top twenty list in both countries.
In South Africa however, users tend to download free Android apps not to play games or to access financial services, but rather to order goods & services & perform a variety of commercial transactions.
Ghana, on the other hand, over-indexes on communications. In addition to traditional apps that appear on other countries’ leaderboards like WhatsApp and Facebook, Ghanaian users also enjoy social networking app MORE (#4) and MTN’s messaging and communications app Ayoba (#15). Unlike South Africa’s strong affinity for commerce apps, Kenya’s affinity for lending apps, or Morocco’s affinity for gaming apps, Ghanaians have no immediately apparent dominant affinity (aside from social networking & communications apps).
Let’s dig deeper.
Key themes by vertical
In the USA, payment-platform-cum-neobank Cash App is the only finance app in the top twenty, while the UK sees the Chase Bank app as the #1 overall app and Google Pay as #19. Similarly in South Africa, financial services apps are sparse among the top twenty — the Capitec Bank app is the only traditional financial services app to make the country’s leaderboard, but South African retailer Shoprite offers a fee-free mobile banking app that is the #2 app in the country.
In Nigeria, however, five apps are among the top twenty: neobank Kuda Bank (which was recently valued at $500 million during its 2021 Series B fundraise), financial super apps PalmPay and OPay, and digital lending platforms LCredit and OKash. Access to diversified financial services seems to play a significant role in Nigeria’s digital landscape today.
In Kenya, financial services are similarly important—five such apps are among the country’s top twenty—but they are much more concentrated in lending. Three digital lending platforms (Creditmoja, Tala, FairKash) are in the top ten, and there’s another lending platform on the top twenty leaderboard: Absa Bank’s loan-focused Timiza. Most of the country’s lending apps are enabled by M-Pesa which itself is the fifth financial services app in the country’s top twenty.
While Kenya has sometimes been touted internationally as Africa’s fintech hub thanks to M-Pesa’s success, perhaps today it’s more specifically Africa’s digital loan hub. In fact, in addition to the four lending platforms on the country’s top twenty leaderboard, there are six other digital lending platforms ranked between #21 and #30.
In Ghana, there are just two financial services apps in the top twenty: 4Cedi and MetaLending, both digital loan platforms.
And in Egypt and Morocco, there are zero financial services apps among the top twenty. Perhaps this is unsurprising as citizens of both countries are some of the most cash-dependent on the continent, with only 33% of Egyptians and 29% of Moroccans over the age of 15 holding bank accounts, according to World Bank data.
Aside from enabling digital interactions with friends & family and access to financial services, one important use case for smartphones is enabling online commerce.
In the USA, three of the top twenty free Android apps are large e-commerce platforms: Amazon, Alibaba, and Shein. Amazon and Shein also appear in the top twenty free Android apps in the UK, along with Vinted (a platform to buy & sell second-hand clothing) and Too Good to Go (a platform that allows users to buy unsold food from restaurants and merchants that have surplus quantities).
In South Africa, four of the top twenty apps enable different forms of commerce: online retail platforms Shein & Takealot, food delivery platform UberEats, and on-demand transportation app Bolt.
In Nigeria, Kenya, and Ghana, the only app in the commerce category that makes the top twenty leaderboards is Jumia. In Egypt, Jumia shares that distinction with Amazon, and in Morocco, it shares it with kids’ & women's clothes shopping app Chicpoint.
Streaming, gaming, and religion.
Aside from communicating with loved ones via messaging & social media, accessing financial services, and buying goods & services online, another major use case of smartphones is for entertainment.
As discussed earlier, in the US, the UK, Egypt, and Morocco, this primarily takes the form of gaming when one looks at the Android free app leaderboards — mobile gaming apps make up at least a quarter of the top twenty apps in each of these countries. However, in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, and Ghana, there are zero mobile gaming apps in the top twenty free apps.
On the contrary, in Kenya, there seems to be a strong affinity for streaming-based entertainment — Netflix, Spotify, Boomplay, and MyDSTV all appear among the top twenty apps in the country. Similarly, South African smartphone entertainment also seems to be led by streaming; Disney+ is the #1 app in the country, and Spotify (#24) and Netflix (#30) also hold spots in the top 30.
In Nigeria, music platform Audiomack is a top-ten app in Nigeria while Boomplay (#24), Spotify (#25), and Netflix (#27) are just outside the top twenty. And in Ghana, Audiomack is a top-ten app with Boomplay (#21) just outside the top twenty.
Another form of entertainment worth mentioning is reading, and the Bible seems popular among certain segments of African users. In Kenya, the King James Bible app is #2 in the country, while it’s #12 in Ghana, and #16 in Nigeria. Perhaps this is unsurprising, as according to the Pew Research Center, Christians in sub-Saharan Africa are some of the most committed worldwide.
"The reality in Africa is that if you really want to scale today, you need to run a hybrid strategy, meaning digital and part physical." — Timothy Nuy, Finclusion Founder & CEO
While startup founders, operators, and investors across Africa must recognize the limitations of a purely digital strategy given certain characteristics of African markets today, it’s equally important to gain a deep understanding of the African users who are online today.
While there’s no substitute for on-the-ground visits, one creative way to glean insights at a distance is to analyze expressed consumer preferences and behavior as indicated by app leaderboards. As the analysis above hopefully demonstrates, examining a country’s app usage patterns can uncover hidden consumer insights that aid market understanding.
Ultimately, as more and more Africans come online, ventures — both on the continent and abroad — that target online audiences across North and sub-Saharan Africa would do well to study users' changing app preferences and the underlying insights they reveal.