Monthly Active Users in Emerging Markets: How to Make It Rain

By the end of the year, there will be 2 billion smartphone users across the globe. Most of the increase is due to rapid uptake of mobile apps in emerging markets —India, China, Southeast Asia, Brazil, and the Middle East. However, as app use starts to grow, we need to have a better understanding of the mobile ecosystem in these parts of the world.  

We have easy ways to estimate things such as monthly active users (MAU) in the U.S. because we more or less have a bipartisan app store marketplace (Apple & Google). In the developing world there can be hundreds of app stores available to smartphone users, which makes calculating MAU much more difficult. Here, we’ll explain in detail the app ecosystem in emerging markets and the developing world.


Unlike most of the U.S., emerging markets predominantly offer pre-paid mobile service. The benefits are that you only pay for what you use, not like in most places in America, where unused minutes or data float into the ether. Most emerging market users won’t pay for apps or in-app purchases; they expect such things to be free.


In India, along with Brazil, China, Nigeria, and Vietnam, roughly 80% of people are using their smartphones for social networking, music, and news — similar to how Americans use their phones. What’s different is that those in emerging markets also use their phones much more for educational and health services (41% and 33%, respectively) compared to the U.S. market.

In a survey of 12,000 people from India, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, 67% of respondents said that they use their mobile phones as the primary source for video, including watching movies, TV shows, and music videos.

WhatsApp, the messaging app that does not use SMS, but instead uses a data plan to send messages, is consistently in India’s top downloaded apps (at least in the iTunes and Google Play stores). Seventy million people use WhatsApp in-country, which makes up 52% of the mobile messaging market share. Facebook and Facebook Messenger are in the Top 5 apps downloaded from these stores, but they are not in the #1 and #2 spots as they are in the United States.


Consider just one of the categories above: social networking. Indonesia has the largest user base of Facebook compared to any other country. There, the app boasts 63 million monthly active users. That translates into 92% of Indonesian users accessing the social networking platform from a mobile device, compared to 83% in India and 79% in the U.S.

Since many in emerging countries are stuck with data service bottlenecks and spotty Wi-Fi service, developers are beginning to think about how to best position their product in emerging markets. Not only must developers create apps that are free, and expect no in-app purchases, ideally the download itself must be fast. That means stripping down apps to be smaller in size, just as Facebook did with Facebook Lite. The old app was 32MB in size, while the Lite app is a mere 1MB.

With a smaller app that downloads faster, Facebook is making a play to boost its MAU numbers. To be successful, then, more app developers will more than likely follow suit, creating smaller versions of their apps optimized for the unique mobile ecosystem of emerging markets.

Likewise, another strategy to increase MAU is for app companies to offer what’s called “zero-rating” service, where they underwrite the cost of connectivity for their users by striking a deal with the mobile carriers to foot the bill when people in emerging markets use their apps. This approach is especially powerful for bandwidth hogging services such as video players, which, as we mentioned, are popular in emerging markets.

Facebook and Google are also working to bring the mobile Internet to emerging markets on a much broader scale by providing free access to the Internet for an increasing number of sites people visit and apps people use. is a project spearheaded by Facebook to make a number of websites free to use, such as news, weather, transportation, and messaging services. It just became available in India in February, 2015.

Google, on the other hand, is taking a hardware approach to free mobile Internet service. Android One, the company’s flagship cell phone for emerging markets, will broker the data exchange between app developers and mobile carriers. So instead of individual companies having to strike zero-rating deals with cell service providers, Google will handle the charges as an independent third party.


In India, along with a handful of other countries, mobile computing takes center stage. Looking to the future, we are likely to see continued mobile innovation in these areas of the world, from app developers to Internet powerhouses such as Google and Facebook looking to make information free and readily available.

With an increase in access, app developers are bound to see their MAU rise accordingly. But to make a sizeable impact, the players need to take even more risks and embrace experimentation, all in an effort to reduce the barriers to entry for their users. We at Mavin believe the more app developers that sign on to enhance their engagement by providing internet access, the better off users everywhere will be. This is something that can make a rather large dent at scale.