IT training for kids who live in the surrounding farm areas of Stutterheim outside East London in the Eastern Cape. South Africa. Photo: Trevor Samson / World Bank
It has been a famous rallying cry that Africa’s internet growth will continue skyrocketing. Research studies have proved the possibility of a viable market within certain countries in the continent. With the introduction of various fiber optic projects across the continent, faster and cheaper internet will become a major benefit for internet connectivity in Africa.
Internet penetration within the continent sits at 5.6% while the rest of the world enjoys a 26.9% average. Within Africa, the only countries with penetration higher than 20% include: Mauritius (26.7% of 1.275 million people), Reunion (27.4% of 803,209 people), Seychelles (37.0% of 86,595 people) and Tunisia (27.0% of 10.38 million people). Morocco is close to breaking the 20% barrier at 19.2% of 34.3 million people. Penetration within these countries allows the web to play a greater role in the everyday lives of people with access. Other than Tunisia and Morocco, most of these countries have a small population within tiny island nations allowing for greater penetration.
While it is true that the web will become a force in Africa, it won’t be so without a few deliberate decisions on both the part of policy makers and business people. Currently, the web is used to access outside destinations and information in most African countries.
Why is this significant?
Until the internet experience is relevant to day to day operations of a people, it is very hard to make it a must have tool. In the US, the web is used from when one wakes up till the moment they retire to sleep. A single day will have someone checking email, reading the news, catching up on blogs, shopping, interacting with friends, banking, work intranets, learning through research, entertainment, and many more. Within Africa, I have found that the internet is used effectively by a select few. For everyone else, this is a great tool for communicating and meeting people through social networks such as Facebook.
Browsing through the Top Sites per country on Alexa.com is an interesting experience. In the US, the first foreign site ranked that I could identify is BBC at number 55. I think of a foreign site as one where content is created predominantly for a country outside your own. The Google country versions are a special case and I will treat it as such. Outside of the US, whenever you type google.com, the country version shows up instead of the global site. So I treat Google country sites as a similar iteration to the global site. Out of the top 100 sites within the US, I could only identify BBC as a foreign site.
In Japan, China and the UK, I found US sites but also a good amount of local web sites relevant to the country. In China for example, none of the global powerhouses such as Google and Yahoo led the way. These country leading sites cover a wide range of fields from shopping, recreation, local and government services, entertainment, news, resources and many others.
In Africa, this is not the case. The top Nigerian site ranks 16th among the leading sites. Nigeria though has around 22 sites within its top 100. South Africa’s first site is ranked 8th with a healthy 42 sites within its top 100. Egypt’s top site is ranked 8th while Morocco’s is 9th. Kenya’s top site is 12th with 25 sites amongst the top 100.
In my opinion, until African governments start investing in better websites to assist its citizenry, until corporations both large and small start delivering services or improve workflows online; we will always trail the rest of the world. While connection speeds and the drop in prices are major factors in the growth of web penetration, so will the delivery of every day services that consumers and citizens expect from their corporations and governments respectively.
Cheaper internet will mean more people will have a chance to go online. But how sustainable will the web be in Africa without great local content? We can all visit Facebook and BBC and laugh at YouTube videos, but we need local content outside of news to make the internet a truly living and breathing organism. Services such as job and real estate searches, car buying, shopping, local entertainment and the like will be important.
This brings me to the final missing piece that I think is as relevant as a conscious shift in strategy by both governments and corporations. Online Payment Services. Discussion on payment services will require a separate post, but until a payment system is established in Africa that is respected and accepted by both locals and the world at large, ecommerce in Africa will be a dud. Fraud has rocked so many banks and online payment services. For every new payment product made available, a hundred hackers try to figure out a way to steal from them. This has become a major pain for most companies and international ones have learnt to avoid Africa like the plague. We need a stable, robust and scalable solution that work in most African countries. Once that is established, I think we will be on our way to realizing the potential of the web and the smart phones in Africa.