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Why A Lot of Africans Are Not On the Internet. The Answer is Not As Obvious

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Rural shops

One thought that was shared at AfricaCom 2017 last month that kept nagging me was that of why the internet penetration rate was still low in Africa. This is particularly of interest to me because my livelihood comes from an internet startup and I am desperate to have more people online in Zimbabwe and Africa so as to have butter with my daily bread. As we all know, man shall not live by bread alone but of course by bread and butter.

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There are several reasons why the Africans who are not on the internet are not on the internet. I will first discuss the obvious ones which have always been given and which I trust my colleagues here on Techzim have expounded on before. I will term these the classical reasons. I will then look at the less obvious reasons.

I propose that the classical reasons are the ones the generality of us are comfortable siting because they are kind of beyond our control, it’s easy to point the finger and raise placards. The not so obvious reasons however, can be more readily solved by us: entrepreneurs, creatives, random folks.

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Classical reasons why a bunch of our cousins are not online

No Connectivity

Without the infrastructure that allows access then there is no conversation about why people are not on the internet. Historically in Africa we did not have much of a telephony infrastructure: remember in Zimbabwe the waiting period to get a landline could be decades.

Mobile is really the connectivity we know and the operators have done a good job connecting us to the internet. POTRAZ says 98% of internet connection is mobile. However, because the mobile infrastructure (well even the fixed really) has been rolled out by businesses capital, we can’t expect them to spend multiple thousands to set up infrastructure in rural areas where the population is scattered and hence each base station for example would only serve a fraction of the people it would in an urban centre.

Added to that is the fact that incomes are low in rural areas. It just doesn’t make economic sense for mobile operators to extend connectivity to rural areas even though more than 60% of the population resides there in the case of Zimbabwe.

This is where the government should play a role. The regulator (POTRAZ) collects money from mobile operators that goes into what is called the Universal Access Fund. This money must be used to expand connectivity to the non economically viable areas. There hasn’t been much transparency on how this money is being used in Zimbabwe and even whether government owned operators are contributing. I hope this gets solved by the new administration in the land. The situation where the Vice President, now President of the Republic diverts those funds towards ZIFA is unacceptable no matter what excuse is given.

Cost of Data is Too High

This has been discussed over and over before. Relative to incomes, the cost of data is still too high in Africa and in Zimbabwe particularly. I am not in the camp of those who say we are being overcharged by operators in this country and continent. Their operating costs and business risks are significantly higher because of things like non reliable electricity supply. Where it’s available, electricity is too expensive in Zimbabwe, one wonders why ZESA is making losses.

Overcharging can’t be ruled out on the continent though. There is not much competition in the telecoms sector and in the words of Kamal Bhattacharya the Chief Innovation Officer at Safaricom (Kenya’s Econet), “We will charge what we are able to charge.” I liked his candor. He said this at Africacom and I decided I liked the guy. That is the truth in free markets, you charge the highest price you can get away with and MNO’s can get away with much. They will continue to do so until they are disrupted. As far as voice they were disrupted by OTT services like WhatsApp. Watch out ku data uku.

High Cost of Devices

This is increasingly becoming less important. Devices are becoming less expensive by the day thanks to Google’s Android being an open source operating system and the mass production refinement of China and other Asian countries. Credit is playing a big role in extending accessibility of mobile devices too. In Zimbabwe, Telecel, NetOne and Econet all have credit facilities for purchase of mobile devices.

G-Tel is also a big player in furthering device accessibility in Zimbabwe. Their prices cannot be called cheap but they have done well in structuring credit products to allow people particularly Civil Servants to pay for their devices over time. Analysing the G-Tel business model could actually reveal that they are more of a finance company than a technology company- hope we will do that analysis soon.

Not so obvious reasons why a number of Africans are not online

Content content content

The Safaricom Chief Innovation Officer I talked about above also mentioned something really important. He said expanding connectivity and lowering the cost of data may not necessarily get everyone online. People want content that is relevant to them.

This is where the entrepreneurs must come in. The internet ecosystem needs creative people who will upload content that local communities resonate with. This is at the core of our belief as Controvert Media (the parent company for Techzim). This is why we founded pindula.co.zw. Locally relevant content is so limited on the internet and the unfortunate thing is that sometimes the few that s there is trying too hard to look American. Not such a good idea,, local must just be local.

I have to mention Madam Boss, Bustop TV and the rest of that crew, they are doing well.

Language is important

African vernacular languages are all but missing on the internet. How relevant can content be without crossing into mother tongues? Chirungu chakauya nengarava ichi veduwe (English came by ships dear reader), a good number of our friends are not too comfortable with the language.

Why has Zimdancehall taken off the way it has? It touches on relevant issues and embraces local languages. How many local websites can be described in the same words? It’s embarassing that my grandfather would only be able to read this long article I have written with the help of Google Translate which is not reliable at all. I am embarrassed.

How WhatsApp proves me right

We have already established that WhatsApp is the internet in Zimbabwe. We may attribute this to the WhatsApp bundle but not really. The WhatsApp bundle came because WhatsApp was already widely used and the number of users was increasing rapidly. The bundle only accelerated that growth.

Why WhatsApp? Yes it made communication easier and cheaper but WhatsApp’s real power was giving Zimbabweans access to locally relevant content. Sharing of media and news stories makes WhatsApp of higher utility than SMS which is cheaper if you buy SMS bundles. The content that circulates there is mostly highly relevant to Zimbabwe: the jokes, the news, the language… How we experience WhatsApp is basically how an American experiences the internet.

Before the WhatsApp bundle people were already going to retail shops looking for phone inoita WhatsApp (device that can run WhatsApp) and the Nokia C3 became very popular over night as the entry level affordable phone that could support the application. This proves that if connectivity is already there and there is relevant content, people will solve all the other hurdles to get online.

The advertising industry in Zimbabwe is too slow and too clueless (forgive me)

Why is there not much local content on the internet? It costs money to create that content and publish it. The most common model for internet content producers all over the world is to finance and sustain their operations through advertising. This year for the first time the global advertising spend on the internet exceeded television and this is going to keep increasing.

In Zimbabwe however, very few advertisers have invested in understanding digital marketing. This then makes it not so attractive for more entrepreneurs to produce content and this feeds the cycle of few Zimbabweans on the internet due to lack of relevant content.

The biggest ad network in the world, Google supports only a few languages. If I expect to make money through Adsense I have to shelve my ideas around vernacular content. If there were local brands though that are online and looking for an audience I would build up quite an audience through vernacular content.

Who takes the first step then, the advertiser or the entrepreneur? The entrepreneur has to because once the advertiser sees a huge following they will want to have a piece of it. I will end with that challenge: can we have more content in our local languages and test if there is no business case for it and at the same time test if not more people will embrace the internet because of it?


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