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Does Africa need another mega-Internet vision?

May 24, 2010

Breathless excitment about yet another plan to bring connectivity to Africa, this time via Cofounder Paul English and his plan to blanket the continent in free wireless via the project JoinAfrica.

I think it is great people are trying to come up with ways to provide Internet in parts of the world with little connectivity (apparently only 8.7% of Africans have Internet access), but I must admit I’m a little suspicious of these grand unification strategies that will bring the entire continent online via various private/public, for-profit/non-profit schemes.

By my count, this is the third such effort. The first is the Google-backed O3b Networks and the second is some company whose name escapes me at the moment.

My concern is that these initiatives all seem to address the issue from the supply side, arguing that people in Africa don’t have Internet because there isn’t anyone there to supply it. The answer JoinAfrica and O3b inevitably come up with is technology-based. They buy satellite time and figure out new ways of wireless transport in the hopes that technology will overcome whatever obstacles to connectivity currently exist in Africa.

(These are all smart guys, so I’m sure I’m simplifying their approach greatly, but from the outside looking in, this is how it appears.)

For all the plans and visions I see around technology and innovative partnerships, I hear precious little about why the business model for providing connectivity in the rest of the world has thus far failed Africa. I know there are a lot of poor people in Africa, but there are poor people in Asia and Latin America as well and yet Internet penetration there is growing, so clearly there is some propensity to pay for Internet amongst the poor (particularly if connectivity is as important as “clean water” as advocates would posit).

How come an indigenous ISP industry has not found roots in Africa as it has elsewhere (and here’s another question, why do we refer to “Africa” as a single constituency, surely there must be wild differences in available Internet technologies and markets between the various countries.)

Why isn’t there investment coming in to the continent to build up the telecom infrastructure. We’ve seen investment in some locations with Vadafone coming in to Safaricom or Zain coming in to the mobile market?

Also, why JoinAfrica’s insistence on providing Google, Wikipedia and news sites(the good-for-you-Internet) but not gaming and rich media sites?

Maybe rich media is what people want? Maybe that is what they will pay for? Gaming and other entertainment sites have lead the way for Internet adoption in both developed and emerging markets, so why not make them available for customers in Africa as well?

The point is, the reason why there is so little penetration across Africa probably has very little to do with access to technology or the availability of local partners. I’m sure some would argue it has more to do with regulatory concerns that make it difficult to invest in telecom.

Maybe it has to do with access to capital, and the inability for local players to finance telecom build out? Or, maybe it has to do with organizations coming in to provide a service heavily subsidized prices and crowding out local competitors.

  1. Richard Quest permalink

    I think the reason for low internet connectivity in Africa is that there’s simply isn’t a hunger for it. The need isn’t for internet, it’s for sanitation in cities, access to health care and clean water, and improved opportunities for organized and predictable employment. With such a vast population living on a matter of a few dollars per day, many of sub-Saharan Africa’s people have greater wants than flash-enabled video or email accounts.

    With most of these countries literally in the dark due to constant power cuts and unreliable generation of electricity, internet penetration has to take an backseat to investors and governments trying to upgrade electrical grids and bring new power plants online.

    That isn’t to say that initiatives to increase computer networking capacity in Africa are a bad idea, but rather, it’s best to temper expectations about what the reality on the ground is and point out that other needs are more pressing.

  2. Kristy Phillips permalink

    Clean water, reliable electricity, health care resources…over 80% of India’s population is still in need of these things but it seems that the Internet is more than just a “nice to have” in that country. In fact I’m sure it can be argued that the Internet is in many ways augmenting the development of these vital resources.

    I too am puzzled about persistent references that position “Africa” as a monolithic and homogenized region. This may explain why so many of my college students in the US frequently describe Africa as a “country”. Shudder.

    To my mind, this essentializing of Africa, the good-for-you approach by JoinAfrica (no rich media?), as well as the prevailing belief of some that Africa is somehow not yet ready for “our” technology resonates too strongly with the colonialist attitudes of our recent histories.

    India, it appears, has been able to shift further out from under these limiting opinions – for reasons too numerous to detail here. But of course, in all its diversity, India is still a country that has enjoyed some powerful and unifying political leadership in the past century.

    The multiple voices, legacies, and political aspirations represented by African countries resists a facile or singular characterization, perhaps leading us to fall back on those familiar attitudes of old.

  3. Africa it will be the next USA.
    The internet it will grow very fast, it’s a solution for new world!

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