Online Africa Weekly Top 10: elections, tablets, transparency, free Wi-Fi, and more
A few themes from this past week’s headlines are worth discussing in greater detail.
Elections are top of mind for many online users in Algeria, Guinea-Bissau, Malawi, and South Africa though each nation has a different degree of online engagement. In Algeria, the vast majority of the population is under the age of 30. Accordingly, the youth potentially had the ability to decide a fair election last week. Social media is a key tool for the six presidential candidates to spread word of their platforms (especially now that 3G service is available thus facilitating the sharing of online media). Several hashtags and videos were shared leading up to election day. Critics still downplay the role the internet has in deciding an election given low internet penetration rates and the power of word-of-mouth communication. Down in South Africa, social media is being touted as a safe place to engage in political debate. Google has even launched a national elections hub to better organize information for voters, journalists, and campaigners. Presidential elections in Guinea-Bissau certainly were not influenced by online activity (due to single-digit internet access rates), but the internet still was used to monitor irregularities. Voters in Malawi can now verify their registration status using an online (and SMS) platform.
Monetizing African apps is a challenge and we continue to read of the struggles faced by developers who have a great idea that can solve a local problem but simply cannot reap financial benefits from the service. For one, there is limited disposable income even in relatively strong economies like Kenya. Credit card usage is very low; mobile money usage is common. However, telcos are scant to open their mobile money platforms via API for developers to integrate into their applications. Funding is hard enough to come by in the East Africa region, for example, and word that sustainable revenue generation is scarce does not help attract new tech investors. Hackathon cash prizes remain an end goal of many developers.
Tablets designed in African and produced abroad (think Congo’s Way-C from VMK and South Africa’s Wise) tend to attract great press but have yet to dominate a market. They are controversial and offer a lower price point with local needs in mind. The downfall is that tablets are still expensive no matter where they are designed, the tablets are not made in Africa, and the tablets don’t particularly stand out among the competition (think Apple and Samsung). Perhaps that will change when Ivory Coast’s Qelasy tablet launches next month as an educational tool. Government-approved textbooks will be available on the Android OS, all housed in a durable body. The price will be high – around $300 – but the hope is that the government will purchase tablets to start. 10,000 units have been produced with more in the pipeline as the company hopes to expand across the West Africa region.
A major uptick in international connectivity has decreased the cost of wholesale bandwidth between Johannesburg and London by more than 85% since 2009. Still, it often can be very expensive to communicate within a nation than abroad due to a lack of national fibre routes. Broadband may reach coastal cities, but inland access often remains inexpensive and slow depending on the infrastructure and nature of competition to drive prices down. In fact, according to research by Analysys Mason, 35 of the 48 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have no competition among national fibre providers. Public-private partnerships generally can help improve national connectivity but every market has different needs.
We don’t come across an overwhelming number of tech stories out of Benin, so it worries us when those that do shed a negative light on the nation’s internet users. The one prominent story from last week focused on how Internet cafés in Benin are becoming centers for online fraud. We don’t doubt that cyber scammers are present in Benin, but they are no doubt the minority. Proximity to Nigeria (a nation with much more going for its economy than cyber crime) doesn’t prove anything. We prefer looking at the overwhelming positives of Benin’s telecoms industry: new 3G offerings, innovative students, a great tech hub, and an upcoming ICT policy.
Kenyan mobile subscriptions
The Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK), the independent regulatory authority for the communications industry in Kenya, does an excellent job releasing quarterly market statistics. The summary of results can be spun to benefit certain sectors, but the recent results from the end of December 2013 highlight what we will call a maturing African telecoms market. That is, the data market experiences steady growth, nearly 100% of internet subscriptions are mobile-based, voice subscriptions are nearly flat, fixed lines experience a continued decline in subscriber base, and mobile money sees continued record growth. There’s no doubt a major emphasis on data and mobile money adoption, but the stagnant voice subscription numbers suggest those that can afford or desire a mobile subscription already have one.
There have been conflicting reports about whether internet users in Mogadishu, Somalia are enjoying the benefits of terrestrial fibre optic cables. Last month came promising news that Liquid Telecom had connected Somalia to its 17,000km African network of fibre cables. Anecdotal reports have made it seem like Somalis are utilizing the increased bandwidth. External analysis of internet traffic data using multiple sources says otherwise; web traffic to Somalia hasn’t changed very much in the past couple of months. Ostensibly the access is there but costs are high and few users spend significant time online. Time will tell if users begin to go online more often and stream video, for example, but for now, very few Somalis are consistently online.
Earlier, we commented on the lack of transparency when the Government of Chad awarded mobile operator Bharti Airtel with a 3G/4G license. No price, or much detail in general, was given. Such is typical of the Chadian government’s handling of all things ICT. Promises are often made to strengthen the national telecommunications industry but results are scarce. Extremely few Chadians use the internet, due to a combination of poor quality of service, high prices for what bandwidth exists, and a lack of awareness. A national telecommunications regulatory body must hold stakeholders accountable. The current regulator, Office Tchadien de Regulation des Telecoms, has not updated their website since 2012 – never a good sign that progress is underway on the ground.
Peace for South Sudan
Many blog posts we encounter lack credibility due to an alienating voice or lack of factual basis. However, a post by South Sudanese blogger Patrick Mathiang succinctly explained how the internet can be used to end the war in South Sudan. He reminds us that social media has the ability to both spread emotional accusations and disperse useful information to a global audience. Those in Rwanda in 1994 were not so fortunate to have immediate access to the latest news. Today, Mr. Mathiang aptly urges the youth to consider using the internet for unification. The next generation need not be betrayed now that this powerful tool exists.
Free urban Wi-Fi is a hot topic these days. Currently, there are initiatives to bring free wireless internet coverage to parts of South Africa (Tshwane, Cape Town, and Stellenbosch), Kenya (Nakuru County), Rwanda (Kigali), and parts of Lagos, Nigeria. Complete digital inclusion is a ways to go, but getting an entire city or county online will take more than simply providing free Wi-Fi coverage. Skills training and access to Wi-Fi enabled devices are musts.