Online Africa Weekly Top 10: Africa’s mobile money lead, 5G, solar-powered schools, Eritrea’s internet snapshot, and more
A few themes from the past two weeks of news headlines are worth discussing in greater detail.
Lean solar powered schools
Samsung has been busy rolling out schools as part of the company’s Hope for Children Initiative. Pilot schools are active in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Sudan, and most recently, Senegal. The company’s Solar Powered Internet School Project converts shipping containers into classroom space for up to 21 students equipped a large electronic board and Internet-enabled solar powered notebooks and tablets. A solar panel on the roof generates up to nine hours of energy per day. More than a dozen schools will be built by 2015.
Lower tariffs from Gabon Telecom!
We often don’t report when a telecoms operator lowers the cost of internet access or improves speed. However, the move by Gabon Telecom to do both is notable. On June 18th, the company announced 50% lower tariffs for twice the speed, including lower installation costs. The move marks the second time since April 2013 that broadband prices have been lowered for consumers. Available broadband speeds have increased from 2 Gbps to 10 Gbps by the end of June 2014. Though the goal is to connect more small businesses in the country, the costs are still expensive for many.
South Africa’s access divide is representative of most countries
An annual household survey provided some very telling statistics about how South Africans access the internet. As few as 10% of households have access within the home, though at least one member of 41% of households has access anywhere. In other words, internet access at work or an internet cafe are more common than internet access at home. As Arthur Goldstuck points out, mobile access is not always reliable and is still often more expensive than an internet cafe. Rural access is still uncommon – only 2-3% have internet access.
Africa is losing some of its global mobile money lead (not necessarily a bad thing)
The launch of M-Pesa in 2007 launched Kenya into the international spotlight as a leader in mobile money transfers. Dozens of other services soon followed across Africa. Years later, nations like the United States have caught up with similar services and a greater level of “Mobile Payments Readiness” (at least according to MasterCard). Still, no nation outside Africa has been able to achieve the level of localized mobile payment services. African mobile money technologies may not be the most sophisticated, but they take unique needs into consideration like no other.
In what is likely a marketing ploy, Econet Wireless Zimbabwe has reportedly begun considering 5G service only a year after 4G was first tested in the country. Critics (the majority, in this case) argue that 3G quality of service should be improved before even rolling our more 4G, let alone 5G coverage. Econet Wireless cites a desire to compete at a global level.
Very little information about the internet situation in Eritrea is available, yet a recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek shed light on just how few Eritreans use the internet. Hardly 10% of the population have a cellphone as ownership and voice costs are extremely high given low per-capita income. Even fewer in Eritrea use the internet, and if they do at the 100 or so internet cafes, the connection is often at dialup speed. In fact, so few Eritreans are online that the government doesn’t need to censor dissent on the internet.
Protecting African intellectual property
You’d be hard-pressed to say that any African country has a strong IP protection culture. Fewer than 1,000 resident patent applications were filed in any single African nation between 2009 and 2012. That is slowly changing as developers, software vendors, and small businesses understand the need to protect their innovations. Microsoft, for one, now offers an online portal (4Afrika IP Hub) that will enable developers to monetize their software applications.
Strengthening the right to digital privacy in Zimbabwe
A (global) concern for national security is often infringing upon citizens’ rights. Zimbabweans are asking the meaning of privacy in the digital age in light of recent arrests behind the Baba Jukwa character (supposed Zanu-PF government mole who became a top source of political corruption starting in early 2013). Just how the journalist behind the persona was unmasked shows how Zimbabwe has a higher level of technical capabilities than ever before. Broad legislation allows for authorities to intercept online communications. Though Zimbabwe isn’t known to monitor internet activities, the major ISPs likely have hardware in place to carry out surveillance if needed. Arthur Gwagwa, as part of the joint project between The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum and Privacy International, has written extensively on how Zimbabwe can refine its legislation to protect online users. He recommends amendments to current laws, international cooperation, and the creation of a Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT).
African social networks
Panelists at the VAS Africa summit agreed there is a role for local African social media platforms. Participants cite a need for local content, focusing on the ability to influence politics and social awareness. The key challenge is data costs and lack of collaboration among device makers, mobile operators, and local social media companies to encourage usage. For one, how can a domestic social media platform compete with Facebook Zero which costs nothing to access thanks to strategic partnerships? It’s near impossible for African social networks to get the critical mass of users to stay in business. Investors interested in African social media are hard to come by, and without sufficient revenue, how can a social network operate for more than a few months?
Speaking of African social media, South Africa’s Mxit has long been the poster child for the continent. However, Mxit supposed lost nearly 25% of its users last year (from 6.5 million to 4.9 million). Much of the decline was due to the network cleaning up explicit content in hopes of boosting the user experience. Accordingly, the average time per user on Mxit improved by 10% to 105 minutes annually. Despite better engagement, the network faces challenges as smartphone adoption takes off in South Africa. To date, the success of Mxit has hinged on millions of feature phone users. Mxit is looking to improve its smartphone product and in the meantime will attract new users by offering the platform in languages like Hausa, Swahili, and Arabic, among others.
Libyan voter registration aided by mobile technology
A mobile and online platform from US-based firm Reboot is helping register voters in Libya. The open-source platform enables SMS and online registration through a variety of applications. Both in- and out-of-country voters can use it – in fact, 1.5 million people have used the system to register for voting. Security challenges hindered the implementation of the program but Reboot’s vision of mobile as a tool to support the nation-building process prevailed. The company is clear to point out that technology doesn’t achieve meaningful results on its own. It can only amplify human intent.