Wednesday June 11 2014

Rising middle class is real…just that we are looking for it in wrong places

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

I was working on a project, and I found I needed to make sense out of a few things about Ugandans. Inevitably, I went to see the top Google searches for Uganda in 2013.

It is imperfect, because it reports only the mindset and interests of the 12-15 per cent of Ugandans who go online, but at least they don’t tell lies to Google algorithms the way they would to an opinion polling official.

I found the Uganda results unusual. Among the top trending searches, there was none of the stories that were big in the nation’s newspapers, TVs or radios except one – the Eclipse! The top search item was Coke Connect, the promotion by Coca Cola and Samsung.

The only Ugandan personality who made it in the top 10 trending searches, was musician Martin Angume who died last year.
In trending people, Angume came highest, at number four, then the late industrialist and entrepreneur James Mulwana at eight. At nine we had Olympic gold medal marathon prince Stephen Kiprotich. No Ugandan politician made the top 10.

Among the “most searched people” there were two Ugandans, musician Bobi Wine at the top, and another musician Bebe Cool 4th.
Then the search for “What is?” top was “What is love?” It continues in that vein, and the top health question is “What is stress”, followed by “health”, “ovulation”, “bloating”, “Aids”, “nutrition”, “orgasm”, “cancer”…you get the drift.

What does all this mean? Well, the last 10 years of my working life I have spent a lot of time looking at the bit of the Internet that few people care about. It is tedious, boring, and perplexing. Generally, it is called “analytics” – who is reading a website, from which country, their gender, their age, their interests, what they read, how long they read, what else they read, and so on.

Those Google searches on Uganda, are derived from part of the humongous animal called analytics.

To me looking at the analytics that many digital editors around Africa have shared with me over the years, the biggest change today is for nearly all major websites on the continent, the majority of their readers are in-country. Until about five years, most readers for websites in English in Africa were either in the US, UK, or Canada.

So while fewer of them are buying newspapers, more of them are reading the online versions of these papers in greater numbers than they have before.
But because the national media do a lot of politics, these sites are only a part of their online reading. They read and search an incredible amount about what happens in the rest of the world---particularly entertainment and sports.

At Mail & Guardian Africa we are a digital-only platform, trying to cover a continent of one billion people. Mail & Guardian, the parent company in South Africa, has set itself a goal of transitioning totally to digital—and making a profit while at it.

Now more than before, we eat analytics for breakfast and lunch, because making a business success of a digital-only outlet means understanding that data like never before.

We do heavy stuff, no hip pop musicians and thing like that, and the numbers encourages us. The people reading us are highly educated, but if you look at their interests, bit of it are Ugandans looking for Google search.

Top of the list is sports/individual sports, especially “running and walking”.
Next are technology, computers, smartphones and so on.
I will skip one and go to the next – food, drinks, and cooking.
Next is travel. They want to see, and this at first looks like an outlier – historical sites and buildings.

Now if you want to understand sports, its politics, its economists, one of the best people to talk to in Africa is a Kenyan writer on the subject, Jackie Lebo.

I asked Lebo to meet me over coffee and see how she would read this data.
She said: “No surprise really. People are getting absorbed with their personal health, and things like running and walking.”

“They are also more interested in what they eat, first for health reasons, but also they have more money and are expanding what they eat,” she added.
“In short,” she said, “what the data is telling us is that the African middle is real. It is growing”.

“And like all middle classes, they want to know about themselves directly, not through what other people write or about Africans,” I offered.
“They are looking for who they are in the historical sites and buildings”, I said.
“Yes,” Lebo agreed.
Contrary to what some critics said, that the Google search results suggested that Ugandans were not serious, the opposite is true: Their world has actually expanded. Look at the analytics again.

The author is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa (