Connecting Africa

Internet: Africa starts to open its window to the world

In sub-Saharan Africa, mobile technology has evolved rapidly, but this has not happened to internet access. With 170 million users, internet penetration in Africa is at 18 percent, which is significantly lower than the global average of 30 percent, and only one in 10 households is connected to the net.

The low Internet penetration in Africa may hinder the continent's development

Still, the number of connected users in the continent grew by seven times the global average between the years 2000 and 2012, according to Internet World Statistics.

"Africa has reached a penetration which has broken the barrier of 15 percent, and that's important," says Nii Quaynor, a scientist who has played an important role in the introduction and development of the internet throughout Africa. He is known as the "father of the internet" in the continent.

However, the ability to produce software, applications and tools is not developed enough because there's a lack of a critical mass that incorporates knowledge.

Most sub-Saharan countries produce very few professionals, and there are no technology investment strategies. "It is becoming increasingly difficult to help creating supplies, because the established companies are getting stronger and there may eventually be no space left," says Quaynor. The fact is that most countries focus on technology use and consumption, but not on production, which is what builds up the economy.

Africa is not changing as fast as the rest of the world, and the gap is widening

Nii Quaynor, board chairman of the National Information Technology Agency (NITA) and director of the Internet Society in Ghana

Internet development in Africa has made great progress since the mid-1990s, and especially in the 2000s following changes in policies and regulations. Such changes have been achieved thanks to the effort of leaders like Nii Quaynor.

"The main challenge was to prepare the environment. Policies, business, economy, everything was new," says Quaynor.

Until 2009, the only way to connect to the world from sub-Saharan Africa were through satellite connections, which are very expensive and low in capacity. The new submarine connections led to a remarkable increase in data transmission capacity and drastically reduced the transmission time and cost.

60 percent of the world population is still disconnected to the world wide web. 64 percent of them live in rural areas.

It is estimated that by 2020, internet users via mobile will be 3.8 billion worldwide.

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).

Internet penetration happens in urban areas. The problem is distribution within countries

Meoli Kashorda, director of KENET (Kenya Education Network)

It is up to governments and regional economic communities to implement policies that allow inland countries to benefit from the international connectivity. According to Kashorda, it will take a few years to achieve direct connection between all African countries.

The connection of Africa to the world is progressing, and so is the connection between African countries. There is, however, one final goal to meet, perhaps the most difficult: the interior connection within a country.

International connectivity deceased the cost of the internet. However, the lack of infrastructure in rural areas has not allowed for the same price reduction inside the countries. It seems that, in Africa, companies have a very limited commitment to the internet.

"When there aren't enough opportunities, vision is blurry and short sighted, and interest in collaborating is practically non-existent," explains internet expert Quaynor. "We must create a political environment which helps these multinational corporations to focus on what is important: region development."

In sub-Saharan Africa, governments have traditionally left infrastructure in the hands of the private sector. Recently, however, there seems to be a greater political commitment to this issue, and some governments are creating infrastructure, either on their own or in partnership with the private sector.

The TZ21 programme, funded by USAID, provides technological tools to schools in Tanzania's Zanzibar.

In the last few years, the number of women involved in the technological world has risen dramatically in Africa.

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 about 100 technological laboratories in 28 countries across Africa

More and more young people are developing applications focused on local needs

Boubakar Barry, CEO of Wacren (West and Central African Research and Education Network)

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 low Internet penetration in Africa may hinder the continent's development

Are you wondering how an incubator works in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Accra or Cape Town?

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.

In order to bring technology to low connectivity areas, several projects are being undertaken in different parts of the continent. One of them is Citizen Connect, created by the MyDigitalBridge Foundation, with support from Microsoft and the Communications Regulatory Authority of Namibia.

The Citizen Connect programme seeks to implement the technology of "white band" to bring the nternet to rural areas of Namibia.

In Africa, new technologies portend an improvement in the living conditions of people.

Citizen Connect seeks to provide the infrastructure needed to offer connectivity and services to citizens, regardless of their location and income or the existent infrastructure.

One pilot project is being carried out in Oshakati, a small town in northern Namibia. It uses a technology known as White Space, an innovation based on the use of blank spaces, or the non-use of the frequencies assigned to broadcasting services, to offer affordable high-speed internet connection in remote areas.

Do you want to know how Citizen Connect works?

Africa is progressing towards greater connectivity, prices are falling slightly and internet use is increasing. Nonetheless, there are still some obstacles to expand access to mobile internet, such as affordability and investment in network coverage expansion. And while internet is already common in sub-Saharan urban centres, more than 70 percent of the population live in rural areas.

Authors Angelo Attanasio / Jerónimo Giorgi

Development Àlex Poderoso

Music M-Kopa video 'African Mbira with Percussion' (Akashic Records)

Project supported by European Journalism Centre and the Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Programme.

Journalism GrantsEuropean Journalism Centre