There are striking echoes between the advance of the information superhighway across Africa and the railways. More than 100 years ago the British carved out an East African rail route between Nairobi and Mombasa to open up trade, as well as securing their foothold in that part of the continent.
In the last few years the emphasis has been on laying cables to carry internet traffic and connect Africa to the rest of the world. East Africa was the last major global region to be hooked up to the World Wide Web.
The comparison with railways is not tenuous either. The first great transcontinental railroad built across America by Union Pacific started at Council Bluffs, Iowa – now home to massive data centres run by Facebook, Microsoft and Google.
But when it comes to progress in Africa there are fundamental divergences. The demand for connectivity is being driven from within the continent by people like Rwandan president Paul Kagame and not at the behest of Western corporations. Of course there remains the danger that these companies will muscle in under the pretence of extending a helping hand and then lock users into their services.
There is no question, however, that without modern internet connections, African businesses would be at a severe disadvantage.
In recent years there have been several major projects to lay information carrying submarine cables to connect Africa with Europe and Asia. This push forward has greatly enhanced internet take-up but there is still much work to be done.
Latest figures show that internet penetration across Africa is now 28%, still some way behind the global figure of 49%. But drilling down further we see that in the rest of the world, 90% of people in those areas with connectivity are actually online. In Africa it is just 9.8%. That huge disparity demonstrates what still needs to be done.
Top 10 countries in Africa for internet users
1) Nigeria 92.7m
2) Egypt 48.3m
3) Kenya 29.2m
4) South Africa 26.8m
5) Morocco 20.2m
6) Sudan 9.3m
7) Uganda 8.5m
8) Tanzania 7.6m
9) Algeria 7.2m
10) Tunisia 5.4m
Evidence is already clear that in centres where disposable income is rising, so is internet usage. Driving this has been mobile phones with 3G capabilities as well as a wave of new businesses from web entrepreneurs. According to US consult McKinsey, Africa’s iGDP (internet gross domestic product) remains low at 1.1%GDP, just over half the levels seen in other emerging economies. But there is significant variation among individual countries. Senegal and Kenya, though not the continent’s largest economies, have Africa’s highest iGDPs, and governments in both countries have made concerted efforts to stimulate Internet demand.
By 2025, Africa’s iGDP should rival the current market-leaders like Sweden and the United Kingdom. Increased penetration could see private consumption thirteen times current levels. Demographic trends—including urbanization, rising incomes, and a huge generation of young, tech-savvy Africans—will drive this growth.
More than half of urban African consumers already have Internet-capable devices. Basic smartphones have already fallen below the “tipping point” of $100 per unit, and companies are introducing new affordable models specifically geared to the African market.
Mobile banking is also an important driver with fast-growing markets in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Rwanda and Tanzania.
Regulators and governments have encouraged improvements in national networks to enable operators to increasing traffic volumes as well as customer expectations of a reliable service. These developments are providing the bandwidth needed to connect millions of additional citizens to the internet, while the cost of services has plummeted as networks are no longer constrained by expensive satellite links.
Technology will help put Africa on the global map according to Rwandan president Paul Kagame. The premier was speaking at one of the continent’s most important events – Transform Africa 2015.
He explained that Africa was having to play catch up as far as globalisation is concerned and that modern technologies were a vital part of the process.
The summit’s theme, “Accelerating Digital Innovation,” brought together governments and the private sector on a platform which enabled young innovators to highlight their potential.
The summit attracted officials, chief executives from the World Economic Forum, the Alliance for Affordable Internet, the World Summit Award, Ampion, Inspire Africa, Global Innovation Gathering (GIG), the World Bank, as well as heads of ICT-based businesses.
Kagame said that ICT should be a tool that enables governments to develop strategies in order to improve the general lives of the public.
“There is never a good explanation why we were left behind in the first place. We have the right strategies in place – but technology is first and foremost supposed to be important in transforming lives of our people. The ICT dimension has to transform everything we do in government and probably outside of it,” he said.
“Just like women’s empowerment, ICT should cut across all departments of government. This means that everyone in public service should integrate ICT in the work of their institutions,” Kagame added.
He noted that technology is increasingly making African markets accessible, meaning that Africa can no longer be excluded from globalization.
“We can develop our human capital and ensure that African productivity is high through ICT. But that does not mean that it is easy. We need to first of all have a mindset of curiosity, responsibility and hard work, which is necessary if we are to become our best selves and compete effectively across the world,” he remarked.
Rise of the drones
Facebook seems to relish the challenge that its attempt at world domination is being thwarted by lack of internet coverage in many areas. As a result it is creating a fleet of 11,000 drones that will beam signals down from on high.
The ‘Aquila’ drone has been developed and is being tested in the English countryside. The network of flying machines can stay airborne for three months at a time.
Jay Parikh, Facebook’s vice-president of engineering, said: “Our mission is to connect everybody in the world. This is going to be a great opportunity for us to motivate the industry to move faster on this technology.” The idea is to partner internet service providers but usage will depend on how many people in rural areas will actually have access to the internet.
Voyage under the sea
The first submarine cable to connect Africa was actually completed back in 1993 when the internet was mainly used by the military and universities. In the last eight years there has been an explosion of activity with the continent now surrounded by a network of underwater cables.
Governments, private investors and communication operators have poured funds into costly new ventures. One example is Seacom, established in 2007 with the objective of increasing internet traffic. Its cable system follows the East African coastline linking South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Mozambique to hubs in France and Mumbai.
The centre of activity is South Africa where a number of cable connections have been made such as Seacom, SAFE (South Africa Fart East Cable), EASSY (The Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System) and WACS (The West African Cable System).
But challenges remain, says, Seacom chief executive Byron Clutterbuck the challenge now is not on the international connections: “We have unleashed the international side, we have terabits of capability sitting there in the Teraco data centre. However you need to be able to take that over to the customer.”
Clutterbuck is referring to what is known as ‘last mile’, or networks that actually reach consumers.
One city dealing with this is Johanesburg. The City has rolled out over 1150km of fibre optic cables, creating one of the best and fastest-growing cable networks in Africa and positioning Johannesburg as Africa’s leading investment and commercial destination. A city spokesman said: “This strategic entity will assist in the acceleration of economic growth and development, attracting investment, enhancing access to services and improving the quality of life. Being a digital city will also result in reduced cost of telecommunications, improved service delivery and increase in access to information technology.”
Liquid Telecom is proposing a new undersea cable from South Africa to the Middle East and Europe.
Using the brand name Liquid Sea, the company has already issued a ‘Request for Tenders’ for prospective bidders to secure the contract to build the 10,000 kilometre network in the next two years.
Nic Rudnick, chief executive officer, said: “The Liquid Sea project reaffirms our commitment to building Africa’s digital future and removing any bottlenecks in providing the fastest and most reliable access to the Internet to every single African on the continent.
“The impact of Liquid Sea will be a far more reliable and ultra-fast connection for governments, businesses, schools and homes in both coastal and landlocked countries across Africa.”
Research demonstrates obstacles in a digital world
The Institute of Internet Research at Oxford University has been examining the impact of connectivity on African industries. One study focused on tourism within Rwanda.
Researcher, Dr. Mark Graham, said: “East Africa was the world’s last major region without submarine fibre-optic broadband internet access, and until the summer of 2009 had been forced to rely on slow and costly satellite connections for access. However, the region has recently been connected via fibre-optic cable – in theory, allowing much greater speeds at much lower prices.
“This rapid transformation in the region’s connectivity has prompted politicians, journalists, academics, and citizens to speak of an economic revolution fuelled by information and communication technologies (ICTs) happening on the continent. while some research has been conducted into the impacts of ICTs on economic processes and practices, there remains surprisingly little research into changing connectivity in East Africa.
“Many tourism firms have adopted and are actively using digital connectivity. But, digital connectivity alone has not led to transformation. Rather, a set of wider barriers prevents the transformative effects of connectivity being realised.”
Dr. Graham said a wider perception of Rwanda as a safer destination and its ‘gorilla’ brand had fuelled tourism but evidence that internet connections had been instrumental was less evident. He says businesses embracing new technologies need to how to adapt them and work together.
For instance, the websites for tourism Rwanda are mundane information-led sites as opposed to the attractive brand-led marketing of places like South Africa. A huge learning curve still needs to take place, he concludes.