App Stores are not designed for Africa
Photo Credit: Android Pit FR
For the sake of the argument, we will only use Android apps, as Android is by far the dominant mobile OS in Africa. Its main competitor iOS remains a niche product on the continent.
You identified that massive problem, you are excited to see many people around you with smartphones and want to leverage that penetration to address that very problem. You code an app and release it to the Play store. You're excited, share it with your friends. 6 months later, you have not even reached 500 downloads. You become frustrated and don't even understand why.
Does it sound too much of a familiar scenario to you? Don't worry dear mobile app developer, you are not alone.
Mobile app distribution is hard, probably the hardest of all products in the consumer internet. In mature markets, app distribution challenges come from app fatigue. In emerging markets such as African countries, habits are very different though: as counterintuitive as it may sound to tech-educated ears, most people in Sub-Saharan Africa DON'T have an email address.
I recently wrote a quick note about Facebook being the winner of the Internet. Facebook Data reveal that there are 1.7M registered users in Cameroon, and 14M in Nigeria for instance. In both cases, that's north of 7% of the population. Facebook requires an email address to create an account and, given how important Facebook is in local Internet habits, it arguably is a good tell of the challenges any product requiring email addresses will face.
Can we safely infer that users won't perform actions that require them to have an email address, such as creating Google accounts? As a result, these potential users may not download apps through the Play Store. The only other way would then be direct APK distribution then, a paradigme any app developer should bear in mind when targeting African markets.
App stores are simply not designed for us, our job to figure out alternatives to get our products in people's phones.