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Internet in Africa: Beyond Accessibility, Opportunities and Threats

Technology based transformation continues to gather momentum, presenting both challenges and opportunities for people all around the world. As connectivity decreases poverty, improves education, upholds gender equality and upgrade health services in Africa and mobile networks are the only viable means of internet connectivity for most African users.

Alphabet’s internet-delivery balloon service, Loon, projects which are believed to provide easy access in rural and remote areas in Africa. Photo: Google

Yet according to figures from the GSMA’s global connectivity report, around half the population of sub-Saharan Africa lives within 3G and 4G mobile internet coverage but remain unable to access the internet. The twin issues to address to close this usage gap are the cost of the handsets and the cost of mobile data connectivity. Just 1GB of data costs the equivalent of two days pays in Africa, compared to 1.3 hours of work in the USA and six hours of work in Brazil.

Africa is where less than a third of the population has access to broadband connectivity, achieving universal, affordable, and good quality internet access by 2030 will require an investment of US $100 billion. To achieve universal broadband access, African countries will need to bring about 1.1 billion more people online. This will require exceptional and coordinated efforts from governments, the private sector, development partners, and civil society, the report says, but the investment is worth it.

“ The digital agenda is first and foremost a growth and jobs agenda ,” says Makhtar Diop, the World Bank’s Vice President for Infrastructure . “ The working-age population in Africa is expected to increase by some 450 million people between 2015 and 2035. If current trends continue, less than one quarter will find stable jobs. Broadening internet access means creating millions of job opportunities.”

Paying for the Internet

High data prices remain an obstacle for African internet users. Consumers on the continent are paying some of the highest rates in the world for internet access as a proportion of income. Citizens of Chad, DR Congo, and the Central African Republic must all pay more than 20% of average earnings for 1GB of mobile broadband data. By contrast, the most affordable rates in the continent are in Egypt at 0.5% and Mauritius at 0.59%, according to A4AI data report last year.

Mobile Broadband Pricing Data for Q2 2019. Source: A4AI data; Susa Africa 2020.

In some countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad and the Central African Republic, the cost of 1GB data remains over 20% of the average monthly income unaffordable for all but the wealthy few. Despite the continent’s accelerated drive towards a digital future, high mobile data prices remain an obstacle for millions of Africans, limiting smartphone users’ ability to access opportunities, including access to quality jobs accessible via online job portals, digital educational material and the ability to connect with loved ones over social media.

Connectivity is affected by other factors like cost, literacy level and education level, cost of (mobile) phones, cost of airtime and speed of connectivity. In 2019, nearly 80% of all required investments are directly related to the need to roll out and maintain broadband networks. However, connecting the unconnected is about more than just infrastructure: about 20% of required investments consists in building the user skills and local content foundations, and another 2-4% should be allocated to setting up the appropriate regulatory framework, the report notes.

While the private sector has driven most successful broadband initiatives, public agencies play a crucial role by implementing effective sector regulation, addressing potential market failures, and creating the conditions for an open, competitive broadband sector.

“In large parts of Africa, we are witnessing a lack of progress in extending access and network
coverage. Affordability is also declining in many nations. Promoting greater digital inclusion is going to require more effective and innovative collaboration,” said Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Executive Director of the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development and Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau.

“We need to leverage our strengths and expertise. Governments can help with policies enabling new technologies, new business models and investment. The right policies will, in turn, provide the private sector with the incentives to build out infrastructure and explore new technologies and applications that will drive demand.”

Connecting the 100 million people in rural and remote areas that live out of reach of traditional cellular mobile networks will require strong private sector involvement, innovative business models, and alternative technologies, such as satellite and WI-Fi based technical solutions, the report notes.

Towards abundance

Across the continent, there is an emerging internet enabled e-commerce sector, where technology hubs are springing up in places like South Africa and Morocco, and online government services are now more accessible to citizens of Kenya and Uganda. Removing the infrastructural, legislative, and literacy barriers to internet penetration should create even greater opportunities for a continent deeply in need of them.

Building an economy fit for the digital age is a challenge that must be taken up by corporations, policymakers, research institutes, educators and philanthropic organisations, to safeguard employment and opportunity for all segments of society.
The rise of e-commerce, entrepreneurship and digital adoption represents tremendous potential for inclusive growth across Africa.

The continent’s burgeoning youth population, which is expected to grow by more than 50% by 2050, presents a significant opportunity to create a demographic dividend, unlocking further investment in digital infrastructure and creating a more robust and inclusive workforce.

Today, there are 16 submarine cables connecting Africa to America, Europe and Asia, and international connectivity is no longer a significant issue. This has allowed countries to share information, both within the continent and to the world, in a more direct way. It has created more space for innovation, research and education.

“Networks have ended the isolation of African scientists and researchers. You now have access to information from the more developed countries, and this is changing the way people think,” says Meoli Kashorda, director of KENET (Kenya Education Network).

There is a real Pan-African movement of technological centres that is encouraging community building and empowering young developers to create innovative products and companies. There are now over 600 technology hubs across Africa.

This trend is expanding at the speed of a new “hub” every two weeks. DTBI in Tanzania, CcHUb in Nigeria, RLab in South Africa or iHub in Kenya, are some of the most popular centres in Africa. The great growth of these incubators throughout the continent is a consequence of internet development, which acts as an irrigation hose. Wherever the optical fibre cables are, new hubs grow like weeds and start to modify local ecosystems. But in those places they haven’t reached, the land remains dry and does not produce anything.

There is also a worry

Initiatives such as free public WI-Fi and long-term investment in connectivity infrastructure are a far more solid proposition in Africa. Others point to initiatives including cyber cafes, where people are taught how to access what they need, or earned data provisions, where users watch an advert in return for a certain amount of free access.

Several years back, an influential report in the New Internationalist, outlined the multinational’s strategy big corporations use to savages emerging markets:

  • Creating a need where none existed;
  • Convincing consumers that their product was essential to a‘ good life’;
  • And giving free samples.

To make this clear, formula was more expensive than breast milk, Nestlé’s ads framed breastfeeding as difficult and prone to failure. Moreover, the free samples contributed to create a physiological need for formula, as breast milk production would start to decrease. In many ways, Free Basics followed a similar pattern. Facebook aimed for convinced poor people in the now ‘developing world’ that connectivity was essential to economic development and a ‘good life’. It similarly gave ‘free’ samples with the view that it would lead to further consumption. Finally, recent insights about the intentionally addictive design of social media echo the physiological needs created by the formula industry.

The “centralised interventions” such as Free Basics, formerly could be misused and become susceptible to control and interference. In April 2019, Free Basics had been blocked by Egypt’s increasingly oppressive government after Facebook refused to let it snoop on users, Reuters reports. Facebook’s Free Basics project the public attention also focused on its ban on India following nationwide protests about net neutrality.

In Africa, however, Free Basics expanded without much public scrutiny to some 32 countries. This quiet expansion by using an innovative virtual private network (VPN) based method and by calling for an analytical focus on the landscape of the digital civil society in Africa. The two key, interrelated phenomena are:

  • Facebook’s evolving strategy, including a greater engagement with civil society organizations; and
  • The focus of digital rights activists in Africa on issues like Internet shutdowns, government surveillance, and the lack of data privacy frameworks.

This trend includes the digital industry and tech corporations’ growing investments in mobile social media, network infrastructures, and in civil society; the use of disadvantaged populations and unregulated territories for digital experiments and data extraction; and the mounting recognition of Facebook’s political role, both within and outside the corporation.

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