There is arguably no other place on Earth with so much promise as Africa. While the continent is infamous for its extreme poverty, the world’s richest countries look to it for its resource wealth – it is home to one third of the planets minerals, a tenth of its oil, while two thirds of the world’s diamonds are produced there. Like a lot of the developing world, the continent has an extremely young, if deprived, population. Combine this youthful population with a flair for entrepreneurship and a catalyst like widespread Internet access, and you have the potential for serious economic growth. And it’s not just Internet access alone that will induce a sea change: smartphones are already changing the way Africans communicate and do business drastically. Recent research published in the Guardian has indicated that “70% of Africans in the countries researched browse the web on mobile devices, compared with just 6% who use desktop computers”.
While countries like Iran and Cuba are effectively locked out from the riches the Internet has to offer, Africa is just sat there ready and waiting. Several companies have been building the infrastructure for high speed broadband connections in parts of East Africa for years, and Google has enjoyed a lot of publicity for its proposal to bring internet to the developing world via a global network of high-altitude balloons. Mark Zuckerberg also champions the cause, and late last year Facebook revealed it was in talks with satellite operator Avanti to bring free internet to millions of Africans.
It is impossible to know how high speed Internet access would change a continent as large and diverse as Africa. However, it’s something that I think about a lot, so I decided to write about it here.
- Networking and collaboration: the Internet makes networking, debate and collaboration between people in different parts of the continent easier. Likeminded Africans will be able to work cooperatively with a common goal in mind, regardless of distance or state boundaries. Small businesses or groups of people would be able to unite around a common interest or goal. The ease of communication and collaboration will help small companies expand nationally and even continentally. Start ups are much more likely to be successful and profitable.
- Minimising wastage, increasing pragmatism: companies with more than one location could be synced and as a result be more efficient. In industries such as logistics, energy generation and distribution, the status of transport routes and other factors like the weather can be tracked, allowing companies to be more prepared. This in turn will teach them how to be more adaptable and pragmatic. Internet-based communication will also ensure minimal wastage and loss – think “just in time delivery“.
- Transport: as with logistics, transport companies, and ultimately African people, will benefit from regular, real-time updates from bus, train and air travel companies. Tickets will be purchasable via a smartphone, and companies can be rated and evaluated, increasing competition between different transport providers. Competition will inevitably drive up standards.
- Education: one cannot overestimate the Internet as a learning resource, particularly in a place with literacy rates as low as Africa. Today, anyone can almost teach themselves how to do anything on YouTube, or Quora. The Internet could be used in schools to facilitate learning, but also in some cases instead of them. For those children that live too far away from a school, online educational resources could mean they are able to be home schooled at very little cost. Teaching standards would be easier to maintain and engaging content is easier to produce. Another example of how useful the Internet could be as a learning resource would be when someone needs to be taught a simple, vocational skill like mending a bicycle or repairing a mosquito net.
- Healthcare: websites will help people in remote communities without a doctor to diagnose themselves, reducing strain on overburdened health services. ‘Big’ data generated and gathered from any future national or continental healthcare service’s website will allow doctors to identify trends. The combination of accurate GPS coordinates and symptom logs could a) increase efficiency by helping to judge where to concentrate resources, and b) stop the spread of diseases like Ebola.
- Exporting culture: Africa is home to a wildly diverse plethora of tribes, ethnicities and religious groups. The Internet will unleash the creativity of an entire continent as small craftsmen are able to easily export their music, art and literature to the world. Africans will also be able to use social media channels like YouTube, Instagram and Pinterest to market themselves to a global audience effectively. Not only will sellers connect with the rest of the world, but the middleman is effectively cut out, meaning the poor will get a fairer price for their goods.
- Politics: people living on the continent will become even less satisfied with the slow, corrupt and bureaucratic governments when they are able to see (on global news and social media channels) the full democratic rights those in other developing countries have. Using social media, they will become more proactive in criticising the government, and use it to organise protest groups and the opposition. Information is easier to distribute and obtain, so Africans will be able to criticise and hold their governments to account more easily. Africans will use the Internet to engage in international politics – supporting NGOs, individuals and charities from around the world.
Some of the above is applicable to other countries, particularly India. Both countries have young populations and a huge amount to offer in terms of culture. I accept that the above bullet points are extremely optimistic and rely on a lot of progress in terms of international investment and the continent’s ability to feed its people, but nevertheless there is huge promise for Africa. I am excited for the millions of people whose lives stand to be changed drastically – albeit over quite a length of time by widespread Internet access. There will always be a risk with respect to Internet freedom: just look at places like China and North Korea. Many countries in Africa suffer from endemic corruption and poor leadership. While the power of the Internet can help to alleviate these problems, repressive regimes like that found in Ethiopia, Sudan and The Gambia are infamous for their tendency to limit internet freedom. But, look at Nigeria. Look at Kenya. They stand to gain huge amounts from widespread high speed Internet access.
It cannot happen fast enough!