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TMCNet:  Innovation Africa - Poor internet blocks African innovative genius [African Business]

[July 06, 2014]

Innovation Africa - Poor internet blocks African innovative genius [African Business]

(African Business Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) A wise man once said, 'Brazil is the country of the future - and always will be'. If you are of a pessimistic turn of mind, you might say the same about Africa's digital prospects. Mobile phones have made a huge difference to the economies of Africa, with almost as many people in emerging markets now owning mobiles as in the developed world.


But the next step remains almost as distant as ever: the use of broadband internet for more complex online activities - buying, selling, learning and exchanging information - remains the preserve of a tiny African elite.

According to the latest World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Information Technology Report, broadband usage in all emerging economies is lagging way behind mobile usage. The WEF produces a ranking of 148 countries according to their overall readiness to enter the digital world - the Networked Readiness Index - and even the highest scoring Africa country Mauritius is only at 48th place, while the next highest is South Africa at 60th place. Kenya is at 92nd place, and Nigeria languishes at 112th place.

The WEF says that one problem all African countries face is that their communications infrastructure is costly to access - but more importantly, according to the report, they also have what WEF calls 'weak business and innovation ecosystems, which result in very low positive economic and social impacts'.

What does that mean? It means that governments don't work hard enough to develop their internet economies, that as a consequence digital skills are lacking, and that the rapid economic and social dividends that can come from easy access to the internet and its technologies are not accruing to Africa.

This lack of positive impact is all down to the failure of African countries to embrace broadband, argues the WEF. While the attention of commentators has been fixed on African mobile phone innovations such as M-Pesa, the innovations with the most economic and social impact are now found in different forms of internet, particularly mobile internet that demands broadband high-speed data connections. And mobile internet is still difficult to access in Africa, and where it can be accessed it is expensive.

Take Nigeria, the most populous and also (since the recent rebasing of Nigeria's GDP calculation) the biggest economy in sub-Saharan Africa. Ten years ago Nigeria had no mobile phones. Today 70% of Nigerians have mobile phones. Yet broadband internet penetration is less than 10% - not very surprising given that a modest 100 gigabyte mobile data package costs around $420 a month, in a country where over four fifths of the population survive on less than $2 a day.

Indeed, for most of the population of Nigeria, mobile broadband is not available whether wanted or not. According to MTN, the biggest mobile operator in Nigeria, fast 3G mobile broadband will be available in every state of the country by the end of the year - but that does not mean it will be available throughout every state.

A shortage of mobile infrastructure and the high cost of building new mobile masts mean that most rural areas will continue to have no or limited mobile coverage - which is why Nigeria, despite having four superfast fibre-optic cables for international data connections, uses only around 5% of that capacity.

According to the Nigerian national broadband plan, at least 35,000 more mobile towers would required to deliver the broadband connections that would use that international capacity.

Africa bringing up the rear Africa is not alone in lagging behind the developed world in mobile broadband usage. According to the WEF, in all developing economies fewer than 9% of people have mobile broadband subscriptions, compared to over 64% in the developed world.

But Africa is clearly lagging more than most: in the WEF Network Readiness Index sub-Saharan African countries occupy 20 of the bottom 40 places, with several countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic not rated at all due to lack of data.

What is the cause of Africa's continued failure to close the digital divide? A history of underinvestment in infrastructure plays a big part, but in many cases the real deficit is in internet, communications and technology (ICT) skills.

For example, according to the WEF global rankings, South African internet use and impact is not improving because of weak government policy, which in turns perpetuates the country's poor skills base (globally South Africa comes in at 97th place in terms of skills provision). Kenya is fractionally worse, at 98th place in terms of skills. But most remarkable of all is the very poor performance of Nigeria: the country's global scores in terms of infrastructure (117th place) and network affordability (107th place) are both far below average, but Nigeria's skills performance is most striking of all. At 132nd place out of 148 countries, Nigeria is one of the worst places in the world to find ICT skills.

For many, these figures may come as a surprise: as anyone who has visited Lagos or Nairobi recently will be aware, urban Africans are extremely enthusiastic users of mobile technology, including mobile broadband.

For many this means ever-growing use of social media networks, whether they be global, national or even city-based networks, typically run on SMS-type message systems that can function on the simplest of mobile phones without the need for fast internet data connections. But increasingly, the urban elite is using more sophisticated social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, which are often internet browser-based and require faster and more expensive data connections.

Recently the consultancy Portland Communications released its latest research on the use of the micro-blogging service Twitter in African cities. In How Africa Tweets, the consultancy last month [June 2014] reported on Twitter use in African cities over a three-month period at the end of 2013 - and found some very interesting results.

The Portland research included only 'geo-located' tweets - that is, tweets where the location of the user could be identified - and only urban tweets. Unsurprisingly, South African cities are the biggest source of Twitter postings in all of Africa, and Johannesburg is the most active city on the continent, with just over 344,000 tweets in the three-month period.

What is surprising is that Kenya continues to dominate Twitter activity in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Nairobi is the next biggest source of urban tweets after the South African cities, with over 123,000 tweets in the last quarter of 2013. Nairobi is far more active than Lagos - and when adjusted for population the difference is even more striking, given that Lagos has more than five times the 3m population of Nairobi.

Also striking is the fact that Accra is the most active Twitter city in West Africa - and that activity seems to be growing very rapidly. When Portland Communications ran its first African Twitter survey two years ago, focusing on national rather than urban Twitter usage, it found only 2,150 tweets originating from the whole of Ghana over a three-month period. This year it found over 78,000 from Accra alone, suggesting that Ghana is emerging as the economy with the most dynamic internet sector in West Africa.

Rwanda and Seychelles in the lead These results on Twitter usage need to be accompanied by some caveats. Lack of tweets does not equal lack of internet engagement. For example, according to the Lagos technology consultancy NaijaTechGuide, Twitter applications do not even make it into the top seven social media apps in Nigeria, and only BlackBerry users rate Twitter as a leading social media service. Nigerian users are much more likely to use the local 2go messaging and chat service, or Facebook, or WhatsApp.

Nevertheless, because Twitter is often accessed by mobile broadband users (as broadband allows full use of Twitter functions like video sharing) rather than users of simple mobile phones, Twitter usage is effectively a marker of more advanced internet use.

The Portland results are also likely to be of considerable interest to companies looking for premium customers in Africa: Portland reports than in Africa there is relatively low use of Twitter hashtags for political issues, but increasing use of brand name hashtags (with Magnum ice cream leading the pack). But politics is not entirely absent: the biggest recorded spike in Twitter use in Africa was on the death of Nelson Mandela.

Despite the disappointing rate of take-up of internet services in Africa, it still remains true that sub-Saharan Africa will be one of the great online markets of the future.

But what is also clear is that the leading online economies may not be the ones that digital pioneers first expected. According to the WEF, the sub-Saharan African country experiencing the biggest social impact from internet use is Rwanda. And the country recording the highest level of individual usage is Seychelles. In the digital age, Africa's biggest economies are getting left behind.

Another factor behind Africa's growth is the generally high commodity price, which the report says will continue over the medium term   (c) 2014 IC Publications Provided by SyndiGate Media Inc. (Syndigate.info).

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