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The journey towards accurate survey data out of Africa

When it isn’t as simple as sending out an e-mail, what’s the best practice for conducting surveys in Africa?

Johannesburg, 01 Jun 2021
Read time 4min 30sec
Louise Robinson, CG Consulting Sales & Marketing Director, EMEA.
Louise Robinson, CG Consulting Sales & Marketing Director, EMEA.

Even before Peter Sondergaard, Gartner Research’s senior vice-president, declared that “information is the oil of the 21st century, and analytics is the combustion engine”, the need for better data was becoming apparent. Data, after all, is knowledge and good data sets are the building block of any business looking to pinpoint inefficiencies and make evidence-led decisions.

But what if the data you require isn’t accessible via technology? In many African countries with poor network performance and restricted connectivity, something as simple as sending an e-mail doesn’t work.

“We use technology, but we take a manual approach. We pick up the phone, find the correct people, conduct the survey and capture the data, it’s a long process! You cannot get away with anything else in Africa, especially when it comes to doing technology surveys,” says CG Consulting’s sales and marketing director for EMEA, Louise Robinson, who has been conducting surveys throughout Africa for over a decade. (In Zambia, for example, Robinson uses remote callers and VOIP.)

“People think they can save money by doing it one way – only sending e-mail, for example – but end up with very few or inaccurate results,” explains Robinson, who adds that a ‘spray and pray’ approach to surveys can also be problematic. Sending out 10 000 e-mails and receiving 200 replies isn’t the right approach in Africa; what it actually shows is that your database needs to be more be focused: “If you want good results, accurate results, you have to target it,” she adds. “And if you’re looking at Africa, you cannot only focus on English-speaking countries. There are 24 French-speaking countries and 10 Arabic countries that shouldn’t be ignored.”

Conducting surveys in Africa isn’t easy and only relying on old databases and e-mail is just one of the many challenges that Robinson has come across during her tenure. With load-shedding, public holidays, political unrest, bandwidth and language barriers, the first step to conducting a successful survey is creating a reliable database and understanding your market.

“If you don’t have a base to work from, that’s your problem,” says Robinson. “Every year we conduct surveys and every year the playing field is completely different (as well as different within each country). As the Internet infrastructure expands, the possibility of getting better results improves.”

While people throughout Africa use mobile phones – not necessarily smartphones – to access online services, mobile data usage is low because many who can access 3G+ networks do not due to expensive, unreliable connections. According to the World Economic Forum on Africa, more than 60% of Africans are still disconnected from the Internet. This connectivity gap means that expecting the unexpected is the norm. And expecting to conduct the same survey environment one year later is another challenge Robinson has come to anticipate (and plan for).

“A shifting landscape means that you cannot predict properly. Instead, you have to be very specific about the questions you ask,” explains Robinson. When working in Africa, the focus is often on English-speaking countries like Nigeria and Kenya, but Robinson has discovered that the further afield she travels, and with more NGOs and satellite companies putting money and infrastructure into countries such as Chad, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia, it is becoming a little easier to conduct surveys but not necessarily cheaper.

“It’s a very expensive exercise. Anything into Africa is expensive because the phone and data costs. During the last survey we did in Zimbabwe, they put the phone costs up by 1 000% in one day. The phone bills are frightening – Nigeria and Zimbabwe are two of the most expensive places to phone into,” she adds.

But even with exorbitant telecoms costs, Robinson finds that she often has to get hold of people using their mobile phones to ensure the data she receives is both precise and of good quality.

According to Pew Research Centre, while many Africans own mobile phones, smartphone adoption remains modest. Simple feature phones are the most common type of mobile device owned by sub-Saharan Africans. Even in Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria and Kenya, only around one-third of adults own smartphones.

Ultimately, it’s the high cost that comes with conducting accurate (and often manual) surveys in emerging and ever-changing Africa that deters many from looking to better understand the continent’s potential.

“While an e-mail survey may not be expensive, you’re also not going to get the right results. An accurate survey is expensive because you’re often choosing a country that is unbelievably expensive to phone into,” explains Robinson. “You have to spend the money, time and effort. You cannot do business or make evidence-based decisions about a country that you’ve done a tiny bit of research on, or that you’re still waiting for e-mails to come back from. Accurate African data isn’t easy, but it is important.” 

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