Connectivity is the impossible mission for Africa, but for some at AfricaCom 2017, it’s not the most critical issue that needs addressing across the continent.
The digital divide is a term which many around the world are familiar with, but when you measure up the challenges faced in Western economies to ones in Africa, another one comes to mind; first world problems. In London, we complain about not being able to get maps to load so we’re not late to the pub, if only the same problems were present across Africa.
Instead, operators face the monumental challenge of delivering basic levels of connectivity to the population, not only in the cities, but to rural populations across a land-mass of 11.73 million mi². Just to put this in perspective, Europe has a land-mass of 3.931 million mi², while North America stands at 9.54 million mi²; in terms of connecting the unconnected, comparing Africa to any other region is like comparing apples to oranges.
When facing such a challenge, it is difficult to consider anything else. You can’t see the wood because of one monumental tree right in front of your face. But there are other considerations which need to be taking into account as well.
“We’re shouldn’t just be looking for digital tourists,” said MTN’s Herman Singh.
“We need to be contributors not just consumers of the digital economy,” said Future Horizon Technologies, Raj Wanniappa.
“Just bringing connectivity is not the answer,” said Rekindle Learning’s Rapelang Rabana.
When most international organizations look at Africa you can almost see the dollar signs appear in their eyes. Here is a continent which has little to no connectivity, low smartphone penetration, low data consumption rates and few digital services. Many who want to make their fortunes on the continent will talk about facilitating transformation and inspiring entrepreneurs, but as long as the bills are paid at the end of the month, who really cares what the outcome is.
This is a hot topic when it comes to the digital age in Africa. How can African’s ensure they are not simply passengers in the connected economy?
Right now the African continent contributes less than 5% to the total global GDP. This might not surprise many, but considering the shift to digit, it might become substantially smaller. Around the world, the digital contributions to the economy ranges between 8-25%, depending on where you are of course. In Africa, this is as low as 0.3%. The divide will only get bigger.
To ensure Africa has a role to play in the global economy, Wanniappa highlighted the issue of whether ideas can be created needs to be addressed. Using Google’s AI products might show digital progression, but ultimately you are using US innovation, sending data back to the US, where it will be monetized for the benefit of the US. This is just one example, Wanniappa’s point is that the core technologies need to come from Africa, not just utilization of new digital technologies.
Africa is at the risk of being left out primarily because the creation is happening elsewhere. Delivering connectivity is all well and good, but unless the inadequacies in the core business skills are addressed, as well as a lack of innovative thinking, the continent’s contribution to the global economy will only shrink.
Of course connectivity is an issue which has to be addressed in conjunction with the connectivity divide. Singh told the audience MTN was now dedicating 25 cents out of every dollar earned to network investments, but it needs help from the rest of the ecosystem to make connectivity a reality. Of course, it cannot be done through fibre alone, this would be an impossible solution.
But perhaps the privileged Westerners reading this article in London, Paris or Cowbridge (Google it) should appreciate there is more to the African conundrum than simply connectivity. This is a continent where the phrase digital divide means more.