Africa Connected – the internet revolution

Nigerian laptops
It will change Africa forever. Within the next couple of months four high-speed fibre optic cables will link up the east and west coasts of Africa to the rest of the world. It’s going to revolutionise how the continent connects and communicates in many ways – some we can imagine, some we can’t. Next week WHYS is going to be in the country which boldly says it wants to become Africa’s Silicon Valley – Rwanda.

Sim ShagayaMark’s already written about the different issues we’re going to focus on there, including IT. But for those of you struggling to imagine what sort of difference high-speed internet could make to Africa, here’s a helping hand from Sim Shagaya, a Nigerian internet entrepreneur who’ll be joining us on next Wednesday’s show.

Through the 20th century, Africa was regarded as a media backwater – little communication and even less content. In many African countries, up until the 90’s, TV was government owned, newspaper articles had to be approved by the state, and phone lines were provided by inefficient bureaucracies. Back then, an ambitious coup plotter only had to sever a few lines of communications infrastructure to render entire nations effectively deaf and dumb.

Then the revolution started. The first decade of the 21st century for Africans represented the advent and proliferation of the mobile phone. The private companies that spawned these mobile networks made huge profits and their Pan-African brands have become fixtures in the minds of Africans. Internet cafes mushroomed across the continent, PCs were imported in ever increasing numbers and remorseless software piracy ensured that basic productivity applications were available to most people.

This was around the time that I returned to Nigeria and, after a stint with Google, founded several outdoor advertising and internet media businesses. Both of these apply the internet in very direct ways in their day-to-day operations. It is easy to take these technologies for granted but it is patently obvious to me that we wouldn’t have successfully challenged large incumbent players in the advertising industry without information technology.

One particularly illustrative anecdote is of a particularly challenging installation of an outdoor digital billboard in Nigeria’s capital city – Abuja. After my team and I spent a few days unsuccessfully dealing with technical problems, I called the Chinese supplier who asked if I had a sufficiently fast internet connection. We quickly connected our billboard to a recently acquired wireless broadband modem.

Our Chinese technician, sitting in Shenzhen, took remote control of the billboard and undertook the process of fixing our media equipment – as if he was sitting next to me in the sweltering heat. Periodically, he would ask to see the billboard, and it would require only a few minutes to take a photo with my blackberry and email it to him. Barely a year earlier, we would have had to fly that Chinese engineer to Nigeria – securing a visa, buying an air ticket, and booking a hotel room with attendant expenses in time and money.

This experience represents the kind of productivity gains that can be obtained by the application of Internet technology. While there still remain real problems with electricity and transportation infrastructure, the mobile phone and the Internet have greatly reduced the barriers to entrepreneurship.

These technologies also have implications for governance and civil rights. Recently, a passerby recorded, on his mobile phone, an ugly episode involving Nigerian security forces physically abusing a woman. The video was quickly posted on YouTube and led to an unprecedented firestorm of criticism and legal action against the federal security services.

Because of technology, the negotiation between government and the governed has changed permanently. Now, it seems, the aforementioned coup-plotter who seeks to undemocratically change a government must do much more than seal off a few broadcast stations and newspapers to silence a nation. All of a sudden, every African is a journalist and there are a multitude of information paths into, out of and within the continent. Perverse political forces can no longer as readily control our collective mind.

Governments also will utilize information technology in interesting ways by creating more efficient systems for delivering healthcare, education and other public services. Successful public administration will, for a large part, be defined by how innovatively governments in Africa apply technology to simultaneously improve the quality of service deliver and fiscal position.

When not building outdoor media assets, I nurture two Internet properties – Alarena.com (West Africa’s largest matchmaking community) and Gbogbo.com (free local classifieds). Both are essentially online services that seek to fulfill specific needs in the life of the modern African who finds himself increasingly mobile, urban, global and internet savvy. The success of both services speaks to the ability of Africans to grab new technologies but speaks even more to a lack of incumbent alternatives.

Craigslist, gumtree and kijiji have proved that free local classifieds services are valuable, but my bet is that they are even more needed in the complete absence of old-fashioned yellow pages and telephone directories. The lack of fixed line phones, for further example, has effectively made Africa an almost purely mobile environment. The absence of retail bank branches, ATMs and credit cards have led us to a point where mobile payments are becoming mainstream in Africa before Europe and North America. Already, you can spend a cashless day in Nairobi and other African cities and pay for everything with your mobile phone.

It seems that Africa, by not investing in older systems can leapfrog entire models of communications and commerce and apply the newest and most cost-effective way of doing things. This unexpected advantage conferred by being late to the game is about to reveal itself with all its ramifications. While the first decade of the 21st century represented the mobile telephony revolution, the second decade will bring an explosion in mobile broadband.

A number of large infrastructure projects promise to deliver cheap and reliable broadband across the continent. One month ago, the SEACOM undersea fiber-optic cable landed in Kenya. As I write this, I have just learned that the Glo-1 undersea cable has arrived in Nigeria. In a couple of years, the O3b satellite network (O3b stands for “Other 3 billion”) sponsored by Google and HSBC will deliver “fiber-like” broadband connections to the continental interior.

For Africans, these fiber and satellite networks represent massive pipes of information and, more importantly, liberty. Acting with these pipes are 3G and Wimax networks, low-cost open-source based netbooks and smartphones, and affordable software that will be delivered online as a service. In concert, by the end of the next decade, these technologies will reach the most remote corners of Africa – bringing with them opportunity and enlightenment.

But these systems must be supported by human capital of some form. With the failure of the public school systems on the continent, many young Africans programmers and engineers will teach themselves complex skills. It is unclear whether an army of African autodidacts will be sufficient or required to power this transformation. However, the very tools of software creation are becoming more simple and modular as to one day make creativity more important than brute technical ability. Should this be the case, Africa will thrive in the new world – and likely be more of a driver than a follower of new models for organising economies and societies.

Sim Shagaya is a serial technology and media entrepreneur who shares his time between Nigeria and South Africa. He has worked for Google, RealNetworks, Microstrategy and other tech leaders and holds degrees from George Washington U, Dartmouth and Harvard. You can find him on Facebook, or speak to him here on the WHYS blog

41 Responses to “Africa Connected – the internet revolution”

    September 7, 2009 at 20:34

    By all means, we in Africa welcome these news with a sense of gratitude. I have only been able to afford internet within the last eight months only because I live in the rural areas. It has worked wonders for me. For the first time, I have been able to interact with the world and have learned a lot. Internet is a great tool for both the developed and the developing countries.

    I hope this will spell doom to the culture of mediocrity/ ignorance and untold follies that are now prevalent in our leaders and the public in general. Its not for the benefit of Africa alone. The whole world need to work hard against primary and secondary ignorance in all continents. All of us need to have a sense of ownership of our home plannet. If at all we only succeed to restore its beauty and life sustainability like it was 50 years back, imagine the sense of hope instead of today’s hopelessness even as we count our worth in terms of millions, billions, trillions and other -ions which we are inventing daily. Internet is a two edged sword. I hope we in Africa chose the right edge.

    • 2 Kara
      September 9, 2009 at 14:33

      I do agree with internet dont get me wrong it will make a difference but lets take a look at the poor parts of africa they dont even have clean water this kills hundreds of people every day u’d think it would be simple but people just dont care what makes us better than them we are both humans and keep in mind how u would react if your children were dying due to unsafe water ?whats going to be done ?.

  2. 3 Dennis Junior
    September 7, 2009 at 21:05

    Side note: Sim Shagaya, you need to make a Friend Request on
    Facebook …..

    =Dennis Junior=

  3. 4 Matthew Houston
    September 8, 2009 at 01:17

    I would be thrilled to see Africa become the first to fully harness the power of collective decision-making using the Internet. Imagine what problems could be solved. They could be the catalyst for peace across the globe. Especially the schoolchildren. It would be incredibly inspiring.

  4. 5 T
    September 8, 2009 at 02:03

    It’s long overdue. Consider the importance that both the US and China put on Africa (natural resources, infrastructure investment and more). It can only help to even the playing field.

  5. 6 Tan Boon Tee
    September 8, 2009 at 04:21

    At long last, African continent (especially the remote, isolated and virtually inaccessible part) can now be connected to the world at large.

    School children, armed with basic but cheap computers, will be able to surf the internet and bring global events into their classrooms, despite their poverty, in spite of being long neglected.

    Isn’t this a piece of wonderful news in the land of misery?

  6. 7 vijay pillai
    September 8, 2009 at 07:04

    Africa found its Nelson Mandela of IT Technology which could tranform the education poverty to education rich of africa.You need similar technolgoy in poor and remote parts of asia and latin american as well so all can communicate globally without bias and greater global awaeness of climate change and global warming in the years to come, internet connects part of world not reached by air or sea or land..

  7. September 8, 2009 at 09:47

    Well that is comforting; high speed internet services in Africa will greatly change the face of Africa. Looking forward to it. The news however brings to mind other concerns:
    1. Does Africa have the technological know-how to deploy and effectively use this technology?
    2. Where are we going to get power from, both to sustain the installations and to enjoy the internet connections it enables?
    3. A bulk of the internet bandwidth currently available in Africa is used for cyber-crime, leisure (music and sport downloads) and very little bandwidth is used for other things like research and business – one wonders if the high speed internet will not just result to high speed crimes.
    4. With the advent of mobile telecommunication, Africa made a leap: it conveniently avoided the provision of land-line phone networks. Increasingly, investments in essential services like education in Africa are dwindling… with high speed and reliable internet services; provision of essential services might just be forgotten altogether!
    5. I hope the costs and the need for subsidies have been considered? As things are, internet and mobile communications are very expensive in Africa, hoping things will change though.

    • 9 Kingsley O
      September 8, 2009 at 18:47

      Can we be optimistic for a change?
      The internet is used for and by criminals in the West too. How many times have criminals in East European countries hacked into US retailers and banks customers’credit card information?
      I do not condone crime. But, let’s not make it sound like Africa has monopoloy on crime. In fact, the recent ponze scheme by an American named Bernie Madoff dwarf all the 419 scams we all read and hear about Nigerians. I think broadband and better internet access is good for the continent and will be used for more good than bad.

  8. 10 anu_d
    September 8, 2009 at 12:12

    How will better internet connections change Africa?

    Enterprise,Economy and Growth in Africa wasn’t suffering for the lack of proper internet…

    But Internet was lacking ….because the Enterprise, Economy didn’t have the growth and hence didn’t have the need for internet.

    Hence internet connectivity will not change anything in the bigger scheme of things…because it’s a mere tool to facilitate the machine….and not the machine that drives things in itslef

  9. 11 Dennis Junior
    September 8, 2009 at 13:40

    I am glad, that Africa is starting on the road to get on the information superhighway; But, I have a serious concern, who is the responsible party in financing the idea….

    =Dennis Junior=

  10. 12 scmehta
    September 8, 2009 at 14:19

    Connected to share each others joys and sorrows; and connected to cooperate, wherever necessary, be it within or without the continent for the uplift of the suffering Africans, especially the innocent children! If that is the aim of getting connected by the high-speed optic cable, then I’m sure the happy days are not far away for them.

  11. 13 Dinka Aliap Chawul-Kampala,Uganda
    September 8, 2009 at 15:32

    Am ,within the city (Kampala) which is the part of wider E.African community but i`m still using “THIS PAGE CANNOT BE DISPLAYED” right now,When is it “Internet Revolution ” coming to Uganda?

  12. 14 Tom K in Mpls
    September 8, 2009 at 16:04

    The government is sufficiently stable to support an infrastructure that makes the government more accountable. All this while allowing the economy to broaden. One element of my plan supporting the others. This will go a long way towards making Africa richer. Relying on a single resource was never a good thing.

  13. 15 nora
    September 8, 2009 at 17:54

    Great writing, great narrative about exciting developments. I love the length of this piece because I can listen with more background. Look forward to more.

  14. 16 Jessica in NYC
    September 8, 2009 at 17:57

    This is extremely exciting and I anxiously look forward to seeing this access to information revolutionize Africans.

  15. 17 Tom D Ford
    September 9, 2009 at 00:16

    I am all for people talking to each other more, communicating more.

    A lot will probably just be chatter but I bet that a significant amount will help people get to know about other people and about how we are all so much alike and that has to be good.

    Bad governments have always worked hard to control communication and information and so I say the more possible ways to get around that, the better.

    So I see this as a good thing.

  16. 18 raan-chool
    September 9, 2009 at 04:26

    i don’t think inernet is what wereally need right now, internet doesnt fetch water or grow crops…we need real tools of production, its good to have internet but i personally think its going to be another impediment…just like every other futile and unneccesary efforts they got going on over there….we keep missing the real issues and address the bullshit….but i hope those kids visit the right sites, and see the world an compare it to how they living and try to make a difference…

  17. September 9, 2009 at 08:00

    Revolutionary. I can’t wait for the blizzard of words and images that will come out of Africa!

  18. 20 natejolo
    September 9, 2009 at 09:47

    This is impressive! How many West African countries are benefiting from Glo-! undersea cable that landed in Nigeria. What does it cost other nation states to jump onto the technology super high way? It this high way free for ordinary individuals and waht is the cost? Is there competition in the market place to prevent control be a few group of people? As Africans businesses, we must consider the masses before profits!

  19. 21 patti in cape coral
    September 9, 2009 at 12:53

    Congratulations Africa, looking forward to hearing from you!

  20. 22 VictorK
    September 9, 2009 at 13:27

    “Our Chinese technician, sitting in Shenzhen, took remote control of the billboard and undertook the process of fixing our media equipment”

    The entire story is about Africa’s continued, and growing, dependency on the technological skills of the East and the West. What part of this high-speed link has been developed or manufactured or implemented by Africans, or will be maintained by them?

    From European colony to Chinese franchise isn’t my idea of progress.

    • 23 Tom K in Mpls
      September 9, 2009 at 16:54

      Ok, how would you take the next step to improving life for Africans? Personally I think the ability to trade with other countries is the very definition of a global free market economy. Unless of course you can show me how Africans are unable to use this to generate income.

    • 24 Dennis Junior
      September 12, 2009 at 02:08

      My question: Why would a Technician in China, would be so involved in the Internet in Africa???

      =Dennis Junior=

      • 25 Tom K in Mpls
        September 14, 2009 at 16:43

        They built the device, they troubleshoot and adjust it. If it needs a new part, it is easily shipped and then snapped in by anyone.

  21. September 9, 2009 at 13:58

    It is sad that there are places in Nigeria that still lag behind in accessing internet services. One state that lags behind is Borno State where people cannot afford to have internet services due to high cost. So-called service providers like starcomm extort and exploit gullible users and the cafes are very slow such that when you buy one hour time you hardly get connection for twenty minutes due to slow nature of their service. Apart from Maiduguri the Borno State capital all the Local Governments have no access to internet and it is a shame on the governmnent and so-called elites who thrive on the ignorance and backwardness of their people. Afterall even Jigawa State has made provision of internet and IT training to all its Primary, Post Primary and Colleges and sent their citizens to acquire training on IT all over the world so as to teach their people back home but as for Borno State they only regale on showing off their ill-gotten wealth and subjecting their citizens to economic slavery.

  22. September 9, 2009 at 16:59

    How do we get broadband to our Towns and villages Nigeria and rest of African Villages? What are Govt and Individual Contributions?

  23. September 9, 2009 at 19:13

    lot of optimism in the post, but for the dream in the post to be realized not only will locals have to pay a part, but the governments have to stepup to help foster innovation and development.

    which is happening, but more please

  24. 29 Kindi Jallow
    September 9, 2009 at 20:08

    If the four high-speed fiber optic cables will link up West African coast and the rest of the world and bring cost down that the underlying factor. In the Gambia so many people are interested but the cost is exorbitant and few people can afford daily combined with the slow pace of the internet. As this is an other revolution in the internet technology it is a welcome development and we extend our sincerer gratitude to all those who spearheaded the project. The use of the internet as a means of communication, research, entertainment etc. cannot be overemphasize. In years to come the internet will replace news papers and other magazines, they will be forced to close down because of low production as the people will get news in the internet as they want it.

  25. 30 Jim Newman
    September 10, 2009 at 00:52

    Hello again
    It looks like modern technology is being shoved down the African’s throats with the same missionary zeal as religion was.
    Religion promised heaven and so, it seems, does modern technology – including the internet. Religion paved the way for economic and political exploitation.
    Am I being too pessimistic?

  26. 31 Ritesh
    September 10, 2009 at 10:04

    This is cyclical. 10-15 years from today, Africa will be a better place – bigger market & a developing country. Africa will then become a feasible off-shoring location. Its actually a good time to take risks, go there & do sumthing that will satisfy our souls.I would!

    Its the next big oppurtuniy – Africa, here it comes!

  27. 32 Michael S.
    September 10, 2009 at 12:13

    On the one hand I salute the IT revolution in many African countries, on the other hand I wonder how it is possible to invest millions and millions of dollars in a technology while thousands and probably millions suffer starvation and do not have clean water, while the infant death rate is at 80% at many places. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy chatting to people I know in Zimbabwe but then again I think the rural areas will not benefit from such a technology at all, the cities become wealthy and healthy while 80% of the country don’t benefit from such invests. You can follow this expansion in Angola, where approx. 3% profit and benefit from the Oil, the rest does not. To me this sounds like, the rich get richer, the poor need the preacher. At some place I think it is important to have internet and modern technology and everything, if the country has all other issues under control, at the other place I wonder why companies don’t invest more into health care, water treatment etc. It’s probably no benefit in sight with such a “business”.

  28. 33 Save Sambiri
    September 10, 2009 at 13:13

    1. 80% unemployment

    2. 1 computer per 50 000 or 100 000 people

    3. empty government coffers

    4.congested 2G mobile networks

    HOOORAY high speed internet is here

    HANG ON, where is my clean water, free/cheap schooling for my kids, free/cheap health care, electricity, FOOOOOD!!!!!!!


  29. 34 Dennis Junior
    September 10, 2009 at 13:31

    I am glad, that Africa is getting connected to the internet; But, here is my problem…Is that many people in Africa are NOT able to eat…

    Why, doesn’t the countries use their resources to find the folks in country.

    =Dennis Junior=

  30. September 10, 2009 at 14:06

    Internet access will be critical to Africa’s future, but I question how quickly when electricity is still a major issue away from the coast. Some recent studies have shown that electrification on the African continent is still less than 30% and in some places much lower than that. And in the place where there is electricity, it is notoriously unreliable. How do we deal with these primary infrastructure issues?

    • 36 Tom K in Mpls
      September 10, 2009 at 22:15

      “How do we deal with these primary infrastructure issues?”

      The responsible application of tax money from those with electricity? How about a bit of homespun communism known as the co-op? Then there is outright capitalism, the local electric company. Personally, I’m guessing it will be my last option that does it best.

      The more a society grows, the faster it can grow.

  31. September 11, 2009 at 05:29

    Now if we can just get security in Africa. A recent survey of executives in the USA showed that security was the number one reason for not investing in Africa.
    Literacy rate is an issue.
    The good news is that with the Internet the Africans can get online education more affordable than traditional B&M and they can also learn other languages and get JIT education once they are literate.
    Rwanda already has OLPC which was designed for students in poor and remote areas of the world.
    They also need to hook up with http://www.villagedirect.org which will put them in touch with the UN and everyone working on building a better future with prosperity for all.
    Education + Prosperity = Peace

  32. 39 GOSPEL OKPE
    September 11, 2009 at 06:06

    I greatly commend the initiators of this idea .For some people talking about Africa’s priority,I think it is important we get this right; I remember been taught at the university of the vicious cycle poor countries like African countries are going through ,which is: poverty -ignorance -disease. During the study we found out that it is much easier and effective to break away from this shackle at the level of ignorance than at any other level .This why whatever that will improve the dissemination of information should be of a great priority in Africa,as it will DEFINITELY equip the people to break away from poverty and disease.It will also reduce corruption in the government and crime among the populace as there will be much more transparency in the African society .

  33. September 12, 2009 at 10:47

    The more the merrier. But its no substitute for books and never will be.

  34. September 19, 2009 at 00:35

    The Internet will bring about a fundamental change in our lives on the continent – from the way we learn, share and network. I think it’s the next thing after Telecoms…5-7 years down the line.

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