With relatively so few Zimbabweans connected to it, internet usage statistics and patterns are not only for the consumption of telecom executives and policymakers but they can also provide invaluable insights which many an online business owner can benefit from. Online business owners (both current and prospective) need to be able to tell and predict how factors such as the cost of internet access, its penetration rate and the number of social media users in the country can mean for their operations.

Marketing

It shouldn’t come as a surprise but many online businesses also happen to do much of their marketing online. Search Engine Optimisation or even the mere ability of an app or a website to be discovered via search engines such as Google can also be considered to be a form of online marketing. The effectiveness of this and other digital approaches to marketing heavily depends on how many of the people who are being targeted in marketing are going online.

Other forms of online marketing which are dependent on the internet usage of your intended audience include social media marketing, influencer marketing, advertising on third party sites and blogs, advertising on online classifieds platforms, content marketing and advertising on social networking platforms (i.e. paying the likes of Facebook and Twitter directly to display adverts on these platforms). This means that when internet usage drops because of reasons ranging from the increased cost of access or, as it happened between mid-2019 and mid-2020, widespread electricity load shedding, most marketing efforts which are supposed to target people who are already online start bringing in fewer returns.

Advertising revenue

Getting paid to display someone else’s adverts to your visitors or users is probably the most widely used business model on the internet; it’s how international tech giants like Facebook and Google make the bulk of their revenue. There are a lot of online Zimbabwean businesses which also rely on advertising revenue. For instance, many local sites rely on online advertising programs such as Google AdSense for their income. Most of these sites also rely on local traffic (i.e. Zimbabwean internet surfers), so any dip in the number of these visitors also means that they will experience a similar drop in the revenue that they can get.

There are also many websites which charge flat, time-based fees for advertisers to show adverts on their properties. While the advertising revenue in such cases does not directly rely on the amount of traffic that the website receives many such sites are very reluctant to share exact figures of how much traffic they are getting—any notion that people are using the internet less still tends to dampen the enthusiasm of any potential advertisers.

Digital products and services

There are many websites (and apps) which offer products and services to their Zimbabwean customers in exchange for direct payment. Examples include those which sell digital content (e.g. documents, books, music and courses), ride-hailing services, food ordering/delivery services and the ones which sell vouchers for prepaid recharge services (e.g. airtime and ZETDC tokens). Fewer Zimbabweans using the internet means less potential customers for these kinds of businesses to serve. In many cases, any rise in internet costs negates the convenience which is usually these services’ main selling point as people then tend to opt for more traditional (or offline) access to these services.

High-end products

Any increase in internet access costs usually affects low-income earners more than it does their higher-income earning counterparts. So the question is this: if an online business sells products or services whose pricing leans towards the high and only targets people with higher incomes, will it get affected when people with presumably less disposable incomes start using the internet less? For example, how much is an e-commerce website which sells high-end gadgets and devices affected when internet service providers and mobile network operators increase their prices?

On the one hand, it’s possible such operations won’t feel the sting of higher internet access costs as much as their counterparts which target a broad range of incomes. Unfortunately, if fewer people are using the internet, this also means that there will be less motivation to produce online content and fewer people using social media. In short, with fewer people talking about your business, its likelihood of getting discovered or even trusted by potential customers is less and it ends up suffering albeit indirectly. There is a reason why even the most expensive and luxurious brands still spend a fortune advertising their products to people who can’t afford them.

Video content

No form of content suffers as much as video when the cost of going online shoots up through the roof. This means that online video content creators whose main target audience happens to be Zimbabwean tend to lose a lot when people start considering the internet to be a luxury, regardless of the business models that they use.

In conclusion

For those who are curious about the state of the internet in Zimbabwe and its potential to be exploited for commercial gain, here are some statistics for you courtesy of Datareportal.

  • Number of internet users—4.81 million
  • Active social media users—980 thousand
  • Active Facebook users—860 thousand
  • Active Instagram users—220 thousand
  • Active Twitter users—168 thousand

In my opinion, the number of social media users in the country is a more useful metric than that of internet users since that figure tends to vary a lot depending on the source. The last three figures can also be considered to provide a realistic yardstick for Zimbabwean tech entrepreneurs—it’s harder to proclaim your intention of getting a million Zimbabweans to use your dating app when even Facebook can’t pull it off.