The State of the African Internet in 1,000 words
Originally prepared for Kingsley Egbuonu of Afro-IP, this essay serves as a general (1,000 word) picture of what’s going on in the five main regions of Africa. We recognize there are numerous omissions (not all countries are covered, for example), so please bear with us in the interest of time.
The state of the Internet is rapidly improving all across the African continent. Political stability is becoming the norm. Governments understand the importance of broadband to drive economic growth and are creating policies and private partnerships to achieve progress. Since 2009, an unprecedented amount of international fibre capacity has arrived on African shores. In South Africa, for example, wholesale broadband costs have decreased by an estimated 80-90% in the past couple of years. A similar drop in wholesale pricing has occurred in Kenya. Of course, competition among telecommunications operators is paramount to lowering access costs and creating terrestrial infrastructure – be it fibre backbone or mobile networks. And, it goes back to public-private partnerships to achieve this creation of infrastructure.
A huge disparity exists between rural areas and the more affluent cities. Nearly all large urban centers have mobile Internet access. However, most rural areas have no Internet at all and what’s available is via satellite.
Still, mobile Internet is experiencing phenomenal growth. Although currently only a fraction of a percent of the population has mobile Internet access (due to cost and coverage), many areas now offer 3G. In fact, 4G is available in parts of Angola, Liberia, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria, and Tanzania.
Stability has returned to North Africa after a year of disarray and even more years of leadership who failed to prioritize telecommunications development. Tunisia leads the region in terms of Internet penetration, but faces a history of online censorship which remains a hot topic. Libya is grasping with privatization of the telecoms industry after years of government control. Egypt boasts one of Africa’s most powerful economies, but lacks government support in the telecoms sector. Most of the capital cities in the region have 3G access.
Kenya leads the region, let alone continent in terms of overall market stage, but Rwanda and Tanzania aren’t far behind. Technology hubs incubate new businesses and encourage entrepreneurship. Broadband prices have dropped since the Seacom cable arrived in mid-2009. However, Eritrea and Ethiopia face extreme government censorship that stifles telecoms competition.
Kenya is the paradigm for successful African Internet growth. The nation has the right political environment: initiative of government leaders, a robust ICT policy coupled with a long term vision, a tech hub that acts as a mutual cornerstone between private and public entities.
In fact, Kenya last year launched “Kenya Open Data,” a site that makes public government data accessible to all. Over 400 datasets from census data, government expenditure, parliamentary proceedings, and public service can be found on the site. Impressive is how the resource came to be. The government recognized the four key requirements needed to produce a successful database: technical usability, data, launch promotion, and legal policy development.
However, even a seemingly robust project like Kenya Open Data receives relatively few visitors. An average of nearly 400 pageviews per day in the days preceding launch dwindled to less than 120 views per day after the launch. Barriers to the creation of a database website are no doubt decreasing as infrastructure improves. Apart from cost, however, the main question is whether citizens will be able to understand the significance of the data. Governments must be cognizant to simplify the data. On the other hand, citizens – so eager to reap the benefits of transparent leadership – must receive training on how to navigate the database.
South Africa, once the clear-cut Internet leader in Africa, is losing ground to nations with more focused economic growth such as Nigeria and Kenya. Still, the South African Internet user base grew 25% in 2011 to 8.5 million Internet users. Nearly 30% of South African Internet users access the Web via mobile device. Still, the nation has only an estimated 5% mobile Internet penetration, suggesting huge growth potential even in an advanced market (by African standards).
The WACS fibre cable is set to bring an abundance of Internet capacity while reducing wholesale broadband costs by at least 20% in the next couple of years.
In 2012, 4G mobile Internet service began in Angola and Namibia, thus ushering in a new era of connectivity. Growing tech scenes in Zimbabwe and Zambia are promising as well.
Led by good regulatory environments, Ghana and Nigeria lead the region in connectivity. The Nigerian government is extremely hands-on with the telecommunications industry and does much to further ICT education among its citizens. Election activity in Nigeria, Senegal, and Ghana is tracked online and via social media. Fibre-optic cables (WACS and ACE) are slated to bring international capacity to most of West Africa by the end of the year. Still, the infrastructure in countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau lags coastal areas by years. Internet penetration rates in these countries range from 1-5%. It will be years before even one-quarter of West Africans have Internet access, let alone affordable access. Challenges range from geographic difficulties connecting the Sahel region to a shortage of electricity to inadequate telecoms regulation.
Sierra Leone has done an excellent job in creating an online database of government projects. President Ernest Bai Koroma has truly redefined the way his government communicates with the people. This is an unprecedented level of openness in government for a nation only ten years removed from civil war.
Central Africa is perhaps the least connected region of Africa. Although Cameroon supports quite a few tech entrepreneurs, the nation only has two competing mobile networks. Plus, fixed-line incumbent Camtel has been allowed to monopolize access to international fibre, which has led to high prices.
With the deployment of advanced technologies such as 3G networks in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon, mobile broadband subscribers are expected to outpace fixed broadband connections over the next 5 years. A Central African Backbone project is expected to increase access through 2016.
Still, Facebook is becoming popular in Central African Republic and the region Centrafrique is getting excited about the ability of the Internet to improve government services.