Online Africa Weekly Top 10: tech hubs, iGDP, literacy, online freedom, and more
A few themes from this past week’s headlines are worth discussing in greater detail.
Tech hubs are again in the spotlight
Who doesn’t love a story about Africa’s innovation hubs? Most large African cities are home to at least one center of tech entrepreneurship that supports startup businesses, app development, and business incubation. The World Bank, along with Kenya’s iHub and Zambia’s BongoHive, put together a thorough map of Africa’s tech hubs. Only a couple are missing, including Zimbabwe’s new Hypercube Hub.
Free Facebook on Tigo Tanzania goes both ways
Tigo Tanzania recently announced that its 6 million customers in Tanzania would no longer incur data charges to access the Facebook app or mobile website. A Kiswahili Facebook service was also launched. On one hand, the move should help bring more people online. On the other, this is very much a marketing ploy by Tigo to attract new customers who will still have to pay for typical services.
Girls in ICT Day was a success
International Girls in ICT Day was again celebrated around Africa on the fourth Thursday of April. Plenty of girls have access to ICT and are interested in ICT, yet relatively few pursue tech-related careers. Other girls lack access to secondary education and receive little exposure to ICT. Events held in at least 13 African nations allowed passionate students to engage in discussion with supportive professionals. As Emma Hersh, Senior Program Manager at VVLead Fellowship Program points out, “This day is vital as we recognize the power of ICT to facilitate progress in our ever-changing global landscape.”
iGDP is a statistic to watch
This year, governments and studies alike have been focused on the internet’s (or telecommunications industry’s) contribution to national gross domestic product (GDP). Recently, it was found by a US-based research group that Senegal’s telecoms industry contributes nearly 11% to the nation’s GDP. Similarly, Algeria’s Ministry of Post and ICT found the contribution of its telecoms industry to GDP was 4%. Such statistics carry substantial weight as they influence budgetary, policy, and investment decisions. However, GDP can be calculated by different means and often is challenging in Sub-Saharan Africa. At least the contribution of telecommunications is included, however, as this field has the opportunity to provide major economic growth (and much-needed jobs).
Free Wi-Fi for towns is not as simple as flicking a switch
The residents of Nakuru, Kenya were excited to enjoy town-wide free Internet services last month. There was much hype leading up to the launch date and Nakuru was in good company with Kigali, Rwanda and Tshwane, South Africa as the only African towns to provide a free Wi-Fi connection. However, many residents of Nakuru cannot access the network due to connectivity issues, The Standard reports. Firstly, only half of the core business district is covered by the current project. Worse yet, the area that is covered experienced a system collapse after demand for internet access was too high. No innovative project is safe from problems but initial expectations should be tempered. Covering a city of 300,000 with internet access is no laughing matter.
Mobile phones, though still underutilized as a literacy tool, are contributing to an increase in reading in Africa
A new study of thousands of mobile readers in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe (plus India and Pakistan) finds that mobile phones, though still underutilized as a digital literacy tool, are contributing to an increase in reading. In fact, upwards of one-third of respondents in these countries read to children from their mobile phones. Nearly all affirmed they would read more on their mobile devices in the coming year. The authors of the study (UNESCO and Worldreader) are keen to point out that mobile reading is happening now and can drastically improve people’s lives. In addition, we read news last week of MALeBooks, a project in Mali, that aims to provide e-readers loaded with free books and free Wikipedia content to school and university students. A promising endeavor, considering the lack of literacy and learning resources in Mali.
Ethiopia continues to stifle independent online voices
Last week, six bloggers and three journalists were arrested in Addis Ababa by the Ethiopian government on charges of “working with foreign human rights organizations and inciting violence through social media to create instability in the country.” In other words, the bloggers (members of a blogging collective) were arrested under an anti-terrorism law despite not having terrorist intentions. All still remain in custody as the U.N. and U.S. urge the Ethiopian government to release the detained. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Ethiopian journalists have been arrested under the anti-terrorism laws. Raising awareness of the lack of freedom of speech in Ethiopia has done little to sway the Ethiopian government to relax their campaign to silence those who speak out against the regime.
Election activity heats up online in South Africa and Egypt
Technology is helping South African voters stay informed in advance of May 7th elections. In theory, more access to information means for more efficient (and fair) elections. Citizens can easily find voting stations, the representatives they are voting for, and results of 2009 elections using a variety of apps and websites. Google even launched an election hub that shows news mentions by political party, along with search trends. Analysis of Twitter data has let us see how political parties engage with the public.
In Egypt, where voters will soon be choosing a new president, there is now an official website focused on the two candidates. The site, launched by the Egyptian government, also aims to inform voters about the electoral process. Time will tell if elections are truly fair this time around, but such a website is a step in the right direction to create transparency, especially since a healthy share of Egyptians do have internet access.
Mobile operators continue to struggle with Quality of Service
To-date, dozens of African telecoms regulators have imposed fines on mobile operators for no adhering to connectivity benchmarks. Although quality of service is improving within most markets, standards continue to be high given infrastructure challenges. In April, ARCEP, the telecoms regulator for Burkina Faso, fined the nation’s three mobile operators USD12 million for poor quality of service. ARCPE, the Congolese (Brazzaville) national telecoms regulator, fined Airtel and MTN 1% of their respective annual revenues for failing to meet legal obligations. So far, it’s not clear if fines actually help improve quality of service, but such cases show why an independent national telecoms regulator is necessary to protect consumers and ensure companies continue to improve their operations.
Home-based internet won’t be a reality for years
Fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) is a hot topic in South Africa, especially this week as MTN plans to bring the service to upscale areas of South Africa. The program will be mostly demand-driven and prices will vary according to each situation. Along the same lines, new buildings within Nairobi County, Kenya will need to have built-in internet connectivity. Although this is not fibre-to-the-home, the move is certainly similar to FTTH in that it requires a fixed broadband subscription. The caveat here is that the vast majority of people in these markets have, and will continue to have, mobile broadband connections. Pre-wiring a home for internet is great in that the option for access will be there years down the road, if desired by the tenant. However, it is likely that African home internet access will remain out of reach, and likely out of fancy, for years to come.