Internet use in Africa alters perceptions about continent [Nation (Kenya)]
(Nation (Kenya) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Kenyans have been at "twar" (Twitterspeak for war) again, this time with South Africans over a comment made by the country's sports and recreation minister, Fikile Mbalula, about Kenyan athletes "drowning in pools" at international meets.
Mbalula was addressing journalists in Johannesburg when he started talking about quotas for black players in South African sports teams, But, according to the Mail & Guardian, he veered off the topic and began talking about Kenyans.
He said, "You can't transform sports without targets," and that South Africa would not go the Kenyan way of sending athletes to the Olympics to "drown in the pool," which many Kenyans interpreted as a jab at their swimmers.
And with those few remarks, a twar was started. Kenyans, as they have always chest-thumped whenever they fight other African nations using the hashtag #someonetell..., said they had won the battle, and that #KOT (Kenyans On Twitter) had won back the nation's pride.
BIG BROTHER ATTITUDE
This latest "tweef," however, does more than illustrate Kenyans' Big Brother attitude on social media. It takes the narrative about the Internet and Africa a step further.
That so many people could engage on one platform so easily across so many kilometres in a continent once regarded as hopeless is changing the perceptions of the world about the place.
Yet it was not always this way. The Internet is so young here. In fact, legend has it that, 19 years ago, while the rest of the region was still offline, Uganda accidentally acquired an Internet connection — but only for a few hours.
Without going into detail, the vice-president of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), Pierre Dandjinou, explains how it happened.
"A big meeting was to take place in the early '90s in the country. The foreigners in the room could not work without an Internet connection. So, one of their techies set up a connection that only lasted for as long as the meeting."
Dandjinou was speaking at an award ceremony for the five winners of this year's Google Africa Connected competition, which seeks to recognise people for whom the Internet has made a real difference.
The room was filled with a crop of young dynamic Africans whose lives the Internet had helped to shape, so much that they could not imagine life without it.
Sitawa Wafula, a Kenyan blogger and mental health activist whose blog earned her the only Kenyan spot at the winners' table, has found a way of fusing her online activities with her offline life.
Her blog, she explains, might be a virtual representation of her life, but it is based on events that have happened to her.
For example, "my epileptic seizures do not happen online, they happen in real life, then I blog about them," she says.
This is just an illustration of how ubiquitous the Internet has become, so seamlessly blending into our realities, that real life seems incomplete without a reflection of it online.
But the Net has not always been the cornerstone of the African narrative. Not for the parents of these winners, and most certainly not for their grandparents.
You see, the Internet is barely 20 years old in Africa. It is just out of its teens, just exited the tumultuous stage that is adolescence. It is just now settling into itself, and into our lives, becoming just one more utility bill, alongside water and electricity.
Like most innovations, the Internet took time to get to Africa. The leaders at the time did not think it was a priority, definitely not something their citizens could find a use for, let alone afford.
"In 1995 to 1996, African countries did not have their own Internet gateways, they simply did not see the need," says Dandjinou. "I remember one time, while I was working for the UN, we went to a country in Africa and tried to convince the government to invest in the Internet. We offered to split the cost with them. Our proposal was to match them dollar for dollar — if they invested half a million dollars, we'd invest half a million dollars. Even with that kind of incentive, it took us six months to persuade them to get an Internet gateway."
UPTAKE IN KENYA
So how come, less than 20 years down the line, Africa has the fastest-growing smartphone market in the world? How come in 2014, we have more than 1.5 billion Africans on social media?
South Africans, the people Kenyans have been bashing on Twitter lately, were actually the first off the blocks when they made their first tentative connection in 1991. By then, the Internet had just rounded the 20-year mark in the United States.
The uptake in Kenya was relatively easier than it had been in South Africa, spearheaded mainly by Kenyans returning from foreign universities and non-governmental organisations that needed a reliable mode of communication with their offices abroad.
But the prohibitive cost of the dial-up modems as well as the computers themselves meant that the Internet remained the preserve of the wealthy.
According to a market analysis report published by the Communications Commission of Kenya, between 1995 and 1996, one dial-up modem retailed at an astronomical Sh24,000. Today the same gadget goes for about Sh1,000.
COST OF ACCESS
For a long time, therefore, the cost of Internet access confined it to an exclusive elite comprising mainly wealthy academicians at the University of Nairobi and the United States International University, Africa.
Mombasa had its share of users, but not in enough numbers to make a blip on the Internet landscape. The rest of Kenya remained blissfully unaware of the bubbling revolution.
This unaffordability and the lack of investment in infrastructure were responsible for the slow growth of the Internet in the country. For instance, in the first seven years of the Internet's journey into Africa, routers were only available in the West.
According to Dandjinou, until 1998, Africa could only get IP addresses from Europe and America. It was only in 2004 that ICANN officially recognised Afrinic and its mandate to provide IP addresses for Africa.
Before then, the only agencies through which Africans could register IP addresses were the Asia-Pacific Network Information Centre (APNIC) and the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN).
GAP IN THE MARKET
Illustrious Kenyan businessman Ayisi Makatiani saw a gap in the market and, in 1994, alongside Karanja Gakio and Amolo Ng'weno, started AfricaOnline. The startup was initially engineered to distribute news to Kenyans in the diaspora but eventually became an Internet service provider.
According to their ambitious objective — to provide Internet access for everyone — AfricaOnline established bureaus that provided basic Internet services to customers. These e-touch centres, as they were called, were the original cyber cafes.
By 2012, according to the latest available data for Kenya, the country's Internet scorecard looked quite impressive: Fixed-telephone subscriptions were at 0.6 per cent while mobile-cellular subscriptions stood at 71.9 per cent. Only 10.8 per cent of households might have had access to a computer, but the number of individuals using the internet was far much higher, at 32.1 per cent.
As low as the numbers seem, Kenya is an Internet giant compared with the rest of the region. A study by the McKinsey Global Institute in November 2013 shows that Kenya is only second to Senegal in terms of iGDP — a measure of the Internet's overall contribution to the total GDP. The country logged a 2.9 per cent Internet contribution to its gross domestic product last year.
What has Kenya done to deserve its plum position atop the rest of the continent?
Significant infrastructure investment in mobile broadband, fibre-optic cables, and improved power supply have seen more Kenyans log on to the web to conduct business. And the number of innovators and entrepreneurs continues to grow every day, not just for predominantly Internet-based ventures, but also for traditional companies that want an online presence.
Everyone, producers and consumers alike, is online. Consumers demand it and are quick to mistrust a company that does not have a website.
And with the sweeping tide that is the Internet, any self-respecting business has no excuse to bury its head in the sand and ignore a whole online market that has the potential to be much bigger than the offline, localised one. Indeed, the easiest way for a startup to go global is via the Internet.
And Africa is quickly rising to the challenge, connecting first and fast.
The McKinsey report states: "Following a decade of rapid urbanisation and strong economic growth, Africa is going digital… Evidence of what is to come can already be seen in Africa's major cities, where consumers have greater disposable income, more than half have internet-capable devices, and 3G networks are up and running."
COST AND RELEVANCE
However, the Kenyan Internet traffic map remains unchanged from a decade ago. Internet infrastructure and use remains concentrated in the urban areas, leaving the small towns and villages woefully ignorant.
It is not through any fault of their own, though. According to Chris Kiagiri, the technical leader for Google Kenya, cost and relevance have proved to be the greatest stumbling blocks to connecting Kenya's rural areas with the rest of the world.
Most people in the rural areas are small-scale farmers or pastoralists, meaning they have little use for an Internet connection that they can barely afford.
As such, Internet providers have focused on urban areas, where the upwardly mobile Kenyan lives, working in corporate offices or trying to get a business off the ground.
As more people get an education, they join the leagues of those for whom the Internet is a way of life, hence providing an ever-growing market for Internet providers.
However, rosy as Kenya's Internet future may look, it cannot compete with the global giants in Europe, America, and Asia. So many challenges need to be surmounted before Nairobi can be legitimately counted among global giants.
For instance, the same McKinsey report that put Kenya's iGDP at 2.9 per cent ranks Sweden as top of the pack with an index of 6.3 per cent.
So, for Kenya to get to Sweden's level, a lot needs to be done to provide the much-needed boost to become an all-connected society. One of the more obvious concerns is lack of adequate infrastructure to ensure that all 42 million citizens have an online presence.
However, a more pressing concern, even for the people who are already online, is relevant content.
"Between 1995 and 1996, 100 per cent of the online content was in English," says Dandjinou. "These days, more people have customised their Internet experience, leading to the proliferation of many other languages online, including Kiswahili. Now, English content is only at 63 per cent."
Just as the Bible had to be translated to appeal to people from all walks of life, the Internet has to be modified to speak the language of the people. People are more likely to receive a medium that speaks to them in a language they understand, not one that alienates and makes them feel inept.
"Internet use is about solving the problems you're facing in your environment, and it is difficult to do that in a foreign language that people do not relate to," Dandjinou asserts.
John Walubengo, the dean of the Faculty of Computing at Multimedia University in Nairobi, points out another challenge that is disguised in the flash and flair of smartphones.
He says that while almost half of Kenyans are online, 95 per cent get there using mobile phones, a trend that could prove problematic to the country's need to increase its iGDP.
"It is one thing to go online, but what you do there is another," says Walubengo. "The problem is that most Kenyans are using the Internet just for social media and forgetting that it could open doors to serious endeavours, not just in the commercial sense, but in all aspects of life."
He cites medicine, agriculture, and education as some of the areas that could benefit from more investment in the Internet and states that other than connectivity, Kenya needs to invest in devices that allow serious research into those fields.
WHAT TO EXPECT
"There is only so much the mobile phone can do," he says, "We will only be able to compete with the rest of the world when we start using bigger screens such as tablets, iPads, and desktops for serious business."
So, what can we expect in the next few years? Things change so fast in the computing world that it is rather difficult to predict what might be, not in the next 10 years, but even in the next five.
"Ten years is an eternity in the life of the Internet," says Kiagiri. "Ten years ago, there was no YouTube or Facebook or Twitter or WhatsApp. What's certain is that while mobile will continue to be key, phones will not be the only smart devices. Telepresence and wearable computing will be at the centre of the Internet conversation over the next five years," he forecasts.
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