As the World Wide Web turns 30, how is Africa faring?
Are the Web’s benefits being evenly spread given the continent’s level of development compared to much of the world?
The answer, according to experts, is we are on course to fully reap of the digital promise, as is the rest of the world.
Thus far, according to estimates by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), more than half of the world’s population, 51.2 per cent or 3.9 billion people, are using the Internet as of the end of last year.
ITU lauds this as tremendous progress, with Internet penetration in the developing countries having grown from 7.7 per cent in 2005 to 45.3 per cent at the end of 2018.
Africa recorded the highest growth in internet connections globally, from just 2.1 per cent in 2005 to over 24 per cent in 2018.
While the continent still lags behind the rest of the world, it would still make one curious to know what Africans have been doing with it.
A Pew Research Centre analysis released last October found Sub-Saharan Africans as more likely to use their mobile devices for social and entertainment purposes than for information-seeking or career- and commerce-related activities.
Around four-in-ten phone owners use their mobile phones to access social networking sites.
While the Pew analysis draws its findings from users in 6 African countries, it is indicative of the continental level of use, and particularly how we should seek out the opportunities to reap better from the internet.
Indeed, more could be reaped, if one takes, for instance, a much-quoted study by the consulting firm McKinsey that shows how small and medium enterprises (SMEs) who have a strong Web presence grow twice as quickly as those who have no or minimal presence.
It, however, is not that simple. The trends also reveal the challenges, of which affordability presents a major hurdle due to the high cost of data in Africa.
The global coalition Alliance For Affordable Internet (A4AI) reports how “survey after survey shows that the high cost of accessing and using the internet remains one of the major factors keeping [many] offline.”
It pegs its analysis on the UN Broadband Commission’s target of affordable cost of a gigabyte (GB) of data at no more than 2 per cent of a user’s average monthly income.
In a survey of 60 low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), the coalition finds that only 24 met the 2 per cent target. None of the countries is in Africa.
These latter countries were found to pay an average of 5.5 per cent of monthly income for a gigabyte of data. In Africa, the average is 8.76 per cent.
The average cost in East Africa is 7.4 per cent of the monthly income. It, however, is more revealing if one takes a breakdown of the percentage for each country in the EAC.
In Rwanda does comparatively better in the region with the cost as per A4AI’s figures standing at 3.87 per cent. In Kenya it stands at 4.01. In Tanzania it is 5.83 and Uganda 16.20 per cent.
The region still has some way to go if they are to make the recommended 2 per cent target.
Slow Internet speed presents another concern. In an analysis by Ofcom, UK’s telecoms regulator, none of the 39 ranked African countries including the EAC achieved average speeds above 10Mbps, which it says is the minimum speed required by consumers to fully participate in a digital society.
The point of taking stock as above is that Africa cannot avoid outside scrutiny as interested parties such as international investors need to make informed decisions in the digital era.
And, for most us locals, it is about being able to smoothly connect to the Internet at an affordable cost to access the increasingly digitised services. This includes ensuring free, secure, and reliable access in public spaces such as libraries, shopping malls, universities and schools.
To be sure, this is already happening in many cities on the continent, notably in shopping malls including in public transport such as in Kigali.
Moving on, I may not conclude without remarking the moment of pride for Rwanda, how it is apt that the partnership with OneWeb to launch the country’s satellite to connect remote schools to the Internet should coincide with the commemoration of the Web’s birth.
The satellite was launched in space on 27th February, just a couple of week before the day the Web turns 30 on March 12.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.