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Internet. Africa still lags behind other continents

While connectivity has sizeably improved on the continent, Africa lags nonetheless still far behind other parts of the world. There are still many obstacle to remove. 

Sub-Saharan Africa has seen great improvements in connectivity infrastructure and affordability in recent years, stresses the American association “Internet Society” created in 1992 to promote the technology worldwide in its report, titled “Promoting content in Africa” published last August The growth has been fast indeed: between 2005 and 2014, the percentage of Africans using internet has grown eightfold, claims a study from the European Parliament’s Research Service, titled “Internet ICT in developing countries” published in December 2015.

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Impressive achievements have changed indeed the lives of millions of Africans. The continent has seen since 2007 a spectacular development of the mobile money industry via m-banking and m-agri systems. The latter provides services to farmers, including market information questions on diseases and treatments or weather forecasts. In the health sector, mobile technologies are increasingly used to capture and analyse data for disease surveillance.
Medisoft East Africa Ltd uses “teleradiology”, a set of technologies that allow radiologist ro read medical images remotely, while Medafrica set up by Shimba Technologies has set up a virtual library of medical information available on smartphones, stress the EU Parliament researchers.
South Africa tops the world’s list of countries with the highest proportion of  WhatsApp users among the adult population for several years.  Platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and WhatsApp are widely available and popular across countries. Sometimes the reasons behind the boost of WhatsApp are motivated by the need to send encrypted messages in countries like Burundi where the government has clamped down on all media to silence opponents.

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Internet development under whatever form is crucial for Africa. During the 2015 Davos World Economic Forum, there was much discussion on estimates that a 10% increase in broadband penetration in low and middle income countries can result in a 1.38% economic growth. Yet, the relationship between Internet development and poverty reduction is not automatic: the EU Parliament study, points out that although Nigeria has the highest mobile phone penetration rate in Sub-Saharan Africa, the proportion of people living below the poverty line has increased between 1980 and 2010.
At the same time, Africa lags still behind other continents. In 2014, the average percentage of Africans using Internet was 19% as against 40% in the Arab states, 31% in Asia & Pacific, 55% in the CIS, 74.8% in Europe and 65% in the Americas. The percentage of households with a computer is even lower,(10.7% in Africa in 2015), as against 32% in Arab States, 30% in Asia & Pacific, 50% in the CIS, 58% in the Americas and 82,1% in Europe.

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In 2016, the number of Internet users in Sub-Saharan Africa represents according to the Internet Society about 28.3% of the population as compared to the global average of over 45%. Yet, there is a large  divide within Africa, with much of the online population living in a small number of  countries such as South Africa, Mauritius, and Kenya, whereas other countries such as Guinea-Bissau and the Democratic Republic of the Congo still have much lower connections rates.
Broadband access is even more restricted : 1% had a fixed broadband connection in 2010. But wireless broadband internet access is growing faster with an estimated number of 18 million people in Africa. However, the geographical distribution of the subscribers in Sub-Saharan Africa is very concentrated, with 81% of the total in South Africa and Nigeria.
At the same time, whereas India and China benefited from the expansion of IT services, African countries have not been able yet to exploit to a large extent their comparative advantages such as the proximity o f the EU market and the availability of large French, English and Portuguese speaking populations, points out the EU report.  Unreliable, slow, insufficient and expensive telecommunications services prevent Africa from better capitalizing on innovative applications. There are still countries like Eritrea, Sierra Leone and Chad who rely exclusively on satellite communications services for broadband connectivity.

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One of the obstacles for the development of internet, writes the Internet Society in its August 2016 report, is that there are limitations to content availability owing to legal restrictions that impact the willingness of international providers and platforms to make content available in a country, where local developers may self-censor their output to keep in line with legal restrictions. Lack of infrastructure and access to power are other serious problems and also the lack of locally trained engineers to operate the equipment and the legal restrictions on those who host the content of others,. Other obstacles include access to power and fibre cables within the country, and import procedures that raise the time and cost of acquiring the equipments needed.
The low and slowing Internet adoption is an issue, particularly given the recent improvements in infrastructure availability. Ten years ago, infrastructure was the significant concern of Internet development in Sub-Saharan Africa. At that time, there was only one submarine cable reaching Sub-Saharan Africa, leaving Internet access to high-cost and slow satellite connections for the rest of the continent. Since then, things have changed considerably. The mobile Internet, has revolutionised access, while many coastal countries in Sub-Saharan Africa boast now from submarine cable connections. The Internet Society highlights a gap between the fact that in Rwanda, almost 90% of the population is covered by a 3G-enabled mobile network while 50% have access to a 4G connection and the fact that the number of active mobile subscriptions and of Internet users, lags far behind, around 10%.

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The conclusion drawn by the Internet Society is that more than before, potential new users are insufficiently  interested in obtaining an Internet connection. According to a study by Research ICT Africa for several countries, non-users explain that the reason why they are not online is this is ‘too expensive’ for them. Many claim they have “no interest”, that they don’t know how to use a computer or that they don’t have friends who use it.
Another important aspect about the profile of African Internet users is that most use a mobile phone as the primary mean to access the Internet, unlike in Europe or North America where, where Internet access via a desktop computer or laptop is more popular. Such difference means that while smartphones are well suited for content consumption and simple interactions, there is a limited amount of content generation that can be done on them, as compared to a  computer. The limitations of their keyboard means that they are  less able to write lengthier text such as a news article or an in-depth discussion in a Medium blog post.

François Misser 

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