There’s more to cafes than coffee

Having lived and worked on three continents (Africa, Europe and now North America) I think I know a thing or two about how relative norms can be. In the process of researching this week’s post, I could easily come to the conclusion that there is little to no point in trying to connect online with blacks in South Africa. The consensus seems to be that all bloggers are white products of privilege and all the blacks are using mobile phones, mostly to text.

The data supports those broad generalizations and to be honest, I’m not concerned with that. What I am concerned about for the purpose of this post is that ‘access’ to the internet is being discussed as synonymous with ‘computer at home.’ If the measure of access is a computer at home then absolutely, as a marketer I would probably not bother with the black population in South Africa. However, if the measure of access includes people who use the internet at work, at an internet cafe or on a mobile phone then I would sit up, take note and start strategizing on how I will connect my brand or product to the Black Diamond, the emerging and emerged black middle and upper class in South Africa.

Here’s why:

  • South Africa has an abundance of internet cafes, so many in fact that tourism site Why Go South Africa uses the stats as one of the key selling points, boasting:

South Africa is wired! The internet is everywhere here – well, almost everywhere – is decently fast and relatively cheap, and there are hundreds of internet cafes eager to bring it to you. Don’t ever pay more than R25/hour at an internet cafe! Chances are, the next one down the road is cheaper… Most have headsets for Skyping, and charge R15/hour or less.

  • The majority of South Africans who regularly use the internet do so via mobile handsets, which makes sense since the nation has 10.5% population penetration for internet usage via a computer compared to over 98% mobile phone population penetration
  • In Soweto for example, people even offer internet cafe services in their homes so what is counted as one household with ‘access’ to a computer could be something totally different in practice
  • In 2006 mobile phone giant MTN, recognizing the demand for internet access in Soweto and the infrastructure limitations of providing access via fixed lines, leveraged its 3G and Edge wireless network to provide high speed internet access at a phone shop in Alexandria township, the first of its kind in the world
  • The UNHCR recognizes South Africa as having high level of digital media freedom.
  • Affordability and capacity is expected to increase significantly in South Africa with the Seacom undersea fiberoptic cable this year.
  • South Africa is currently ranked fourth in Africa’s Top Ten of countries with people on the internet. That isafrica2009top fourth on a continent that has seen an increase in internet use growth of 1100% between 2000 to 2008 compared to 332.6% in the Rest of the World for the same period.

Don’t take my word for it, according to World Wide Worx,

South Africa’s internet population is expected to grow as much in the next five years as it has in the 15 years since the internet became commercially available in the country.

In my opinion, South Africans clearly want to be connected to the rest of the world – the mobile phone stats speak to that. Internet service providers have been limited by infrastructure and simply could not meet the demand or make access cost effective or attractive to the masses. I’m willing to bet that with the Seaweb project expected to increase available international bandwidth 30-fold, South Africa will be topping the charts for internet population penetration sooner rather than later. In the meantime just remember that in some places people go to cafes for everything but coffee!

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3 Responses to There’s more to cafes than coffee

  1. I was looking forward to reading your post this week given your first hand experience with Africa and you didn’t disappoint. You do a great job of shining a spotlight on the forgotten intersection of Internet users who don’t have a computer at home, a nuance that many people could easily miss. In the process you share a unique point of view of the real opportunity for brands and what they should be thinking about in particular. Excellent post, one of the best of the week. (4)

  2. perezb says:

    I enjoyed how you flipped something that might be taken for granted to illustrate the point, and how your post went beyond just one data point to paint a bigger picture. It’s easy to forget that not that long ago, a computer in nearly every home (or more than one in every home) was not a common occurrence here, and that people used computers or the Internet wherever else they could get access.

  3. jtitus15 says:

    Great post. You have an interesting point of view that is well-supported given your own experience living abroad. I think your ability to think outside the box and challenge us to consider different ways people are connecting to the the internet is important. I generally don’t think about an Internet cafe when I think of my target audience online.

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