Lies, damned lies and statistics: how mythinformation can go viral for mobile data

By | September 20, 2011

Mark Kaigwa‘s comment on my previous post exploring the future of cyber cafes in Kenya made me take a deeper look at the data around mobile phones, internet access and of course, extremely affordable Android based smartphones. Perhaps it was not just in the urban areas that cyber cafes were facing a challenge to their business, maybe the rural ones were as well.  Even the photograph I had selected of a small town cybercafe touted “Phones New Arrivals” with the IDEOS first on the list. Given that the Android smartphone can double up as a wifi hotspot, and its sales figures (as far as we knew) were astounding, who knows just how much of a difference they were making?

I’d begun my analysis with the data available on the CCK’s website from their 2010 ICT Survey reports released this month and the Access Gap report released in August 2011.  Then I came across a sentence in Erik’s recent post Android Invasion which struck me forcibly:

I believe we’ll look back at the landing of the IDEOS phone earlier this year in Kenya as an inflection point, where in 2 years we’ll define the times up until then as, “before Android”.

What if all the findings in the CCK’s reports were already obsolete? Hadn’t the survey itself been conducted back in the May and June of 2010, half a year before the IDEOS was launched. After all, didn’t the Access Gap report say:

In summary, although the main place to access internet in Kenya is at cybercafés, cybercafés are mainly used in more developed counties (Nairobi, Mombasa and in eastern counties). In less developed counties (northern, eastern and southern counties) mobile phones and telecommunication centres are the main option to access internet. Between these two alternatives, mobile phones appear to be a more affordable alternative to access internet due to the lower costs of the equipments and lower operational costs (lower electricity consumption and do not require administrative personnel or maintenance). – page 24/25

And mapped usage patterns thus:

So I went looking to see if there was any information out there about the distribution of Android phones in Kenya – after all, a very significant number had been sold in the first half of 2011.  And here’s what I have not found: there are no mentions of sales figures quoting either Safaricom or Huawei officially except for these released on 17 May 2011 (sourced from the Huawei website):

Mr. Herman He, CEO Huawei announced that, “Since the IDEOS launch five months ago, so far over 60,000 pieces have been sold and we are moving towards the 100,000 piece mark with its share of the local smartphone market at 45% in the first quarter of the year, making it the top selling device with February alone reaching 73%.”

Suddenly, one month later on 23rd June 2011, MIT’s Technology review claimed that more 3 times that estimated number were sold:

Smart phones surged in popularity in February after Safaricom, Kenya’s dominant telecom, began offering the cheapest smart phone yet on the market—an Android model called Ideos from the Chinese maker Huawei, which has been making inroads in the developing world. In Kenya, the price, approximately $80, was low enough to win more than 350,000 buyers to date.

This was absolutely amazing to me so I tried to find something more from Huawei or Safaricom – after all, this was an unprecedented jump in numbers, completely beyond Mr Herman He’s wildest imaginings. But no, there was nothing out there  – at least as far as I could find.  All mentions of this sales figure are after June 23rd and those that refer to the source come back to the MIT article as the origin.  The closest alternate I can find is this “confirmed” report that Safaricom’s selling 2000 phones per day.  Given that there were 14 days left in May when Mr He made his estimate, it is possible to reach ‘towards the 100,000 mark’ by adding 28,000 phones more to the 60,000 odd sold = 88,000 and few more.

Then we have 23 days in June for MIT’s magical number of 350,000 – that is 250,000 phones sold in 23 days. Do you think that the global supply chain industry, who face shortages for popular iPhone and Nokia releases would not have made a squeak if suddenly daily sales shot up to 10,000 IDEOS smartphones a day in June?

Anyway, I hope I’m wrong and someone can confirm this number is real but I suspect that the truth may lie closer to it being a typographical error gone viral or the original wording being closer “in the hands of” where the average number of users who share a phone can be around 3 or so in most parts of Africa – that is, around a hundred thousand phones reaching the hands of three times as many Kenyans, a far more realistic assessment of the situation than the mythical sales figure gone viral.

In the meantime, I think I’ll put my secondary research efforts aside for a while and see what happens when we get out in the field and talk to people. Who knows, they might tell us a genuine miracle took place.

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