In 1998 there were less than 2 million mobile subscription in Africa. Today there are over 630 million.

Photo from an MTN Zambia ad making the point that the young ones have crashed the digital party.
Photo from an MTN Zambia ad making the point that the young ones have crashed the digital party.

THE United Nations recently observed “Safer Internet Day”, joining the global call for child online safety. It is a call driven partly by the fact that creatures known as “digital natives” will double in the developing world, growing from 22.8% to 53% of young Internet users.

These are worries that were inconceivable in Africa just 20 years ago.

In the late 1990s, Africa was in the throes of a privatisation spree, particularly in the telecoms market. Five countries privatised their telecom operators between 1996 and 1997 – Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Ghana, Senegal and South Africa – compared to just one privatisation in 1990-1995.

Fifteen new private mobile cellular companies started up operations between 1995 and 1997. Ghana awarded its second network operator licence in 1996 to ACG Telesystems, a consortium led by Western Wireless of the United States. Around the same time, Uganda awarded a second network operator— the MTN Uganda consortium— a full service license including cellular.

In Kenya, a local company called Kencell – which would later go through three turbulent rebrandings and burn through nearly a dozen CEOs in just over a decade – had just clinched the country’s first mobile operator license.

We all know how the story unfolds: mobile takes Africa by storm, with a compounded annual growth rate in subscriptions growing at 2,000% in a decade.

At the start of Africa’s mobile revolution in 1998, there were less than 2 million mobile subscriptions, says data from the African Development Bank (AfDB), and 86% of these were in South Africa. By 2008, South Africa’s “market share” had been whittled down to 18%, and today, latest data from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) indicates that there are 630 million mobile subscriptions on the continent.

In that time, there is a generation that has grown up with no inkling of what the world was like before mobile phones, or the Internet. Meet the “digital natives”, defined as a young person between the ages of 15 and 24 with five years or more experience using the Internet.

1. About 5.2% of the world population is considered to be digital native, shows latest data from the ITU in a report titled Measuring the Information Society 2013. It may seem like a tiny fraction, but the overall figure masks great variations between and within nations, from a low of 0.13% to a high of 16%.

Where the online population is concerned, youth are clearly overrepresented, so when we take digital natives as a proportion of youth, globally the figure shoots up to 30%. The global leader is South Korea, where virtually all young people – 99.6% – are digital natives.

2. In Africa, the fraction of youth said to be digital native is about 9.2%. Morocco’s youth are in the lead, with nearly half of young people aged 15-24 (45.8%) in 2012 being digital natives, followed by Mauritius (42.8%), Tunisia (36.7%), and Egypt (34.9%).

But position five is a country you may have written off, for its abysmal economic performance in the past fifteen years. It’s Zimbabwe, with fully 25% of its young people considered digital natives, ahead of more prosperous countries like South Africa (18.6%), Nigeria (16%), or Kenya, that gets much of Africa’s IT accolades and is angling to be the continent’s “Silicon savannah” – about 18% of Kenya’s youth are considered digital natives.

A country will have a high percentage of digital natives if it has relatively high levels of youth and at least medium levels of Internet use; high levels of Internet use; or some combination of the two.

Having a big youth bulge, and a large rural population, tends to bring this figure down, such as in Nigeria.

3. Digital nativism is correlated with secondary, and especially tertiary education levels. Zimbabwe is Africa’s most literate country, so that makes its reading habits (and by extension, its media and information-seeking habits) rather insulated from the day-to-day vagaries of the economy.

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