The many dimensions of Africa’s digital divide

With the African Internet Summit under way, the continent still awaits a revolution that could be critical for providing economic opportunities

Dr Nii Narku Quaynor of Ghana
Dr Nii Narku Quaynor of Ghana

Internet access is essential to unlocking Africa’s future and opening up the economic and social opportunities that this global network of networks can bring. While there has been robust growth in internet usage across the continent over the past few years and adoption continues to climb, Africa still sits on the cusp of the internet revolution and much work remains to be done.

With Tunis as its backdrop, the future of the internet in Africa is set to take centre stage at the 2015 Africa Internet Summit where ministers, policymakers, business participants, civil society representatives and technology workers will gather to discuss the key internet-related development issues facing Africa today. They will also look at how different countries across the continent approach the digital divide.

Rwanda has long recognised the value of the internet in helping to transform its agrarian, lower-income economy into one that is both knowledge-based and middle-income. But having implemented the standard measures, with significant results, the government understands how bridging the digital divide is a truly multidimensional challenge. It is not enough to focus on developing the infrastructure to access the internet, it is also important to build the capacity to promote, develop and host content locally.

In 2000, the government released its Vision 2020 framework along with the first of four National Information Communication Infrastructure (NICI) plans. As one of its first elements, the government liberalised telecommunications as far back as 2001, which has been very successful to date, leading to three mobile operators with 2/3/4G mobile networks covering 98% of the population.

Not content to rest there, the government also pioneered infrastructure sharing as a way to lower the costs. As a landlocked country, the government negotiated with neighbours to purchase international internet capacity in bulk, and pass on discounts to local ISPs. To further lower costs, the government helped establish an internet exchange point in 2009, to keep local traffic within the country. Finally, the government helped establish a wholesale cutting-edge 4G mobile network.

While this has enabled costs and prices to fall, and internet usage to increase, according to Rwanda’s ICT regulator’s statistics only 25% of the population was online as of December 2014. A high figure relative to its peers, but not high enough to meets the ambitious goals of the government.

The numbers in Rwanda illustrate a shift in the conception of the digital divide. While at some point, and still in some regions, the digital divide was defined by a lack of availability, today almost the entire population of Rwanda has access to 3G mobile broadband, yet less than 10% have adopted the services.

Of course, it is not enough for services to be available. They must also be affordable. Here again, Rwanda has made great strides, although there is clearly still work to be done. In its recently published Affordability Index, the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) ranked Rwanda 10th overall, and first among all developing countries. That said, the cost of broadband as a percentage of average monthly income is still higher than the benchmark of 5% set by the UN Broadband Commission.

Nonetheless, survey evidence in many countries reveals that there are often non-internet users who cite a lack of interest, rather than affordability, as the reason for not going online. This suggests a lack of awareness of the internet, in some cases, but more importantly, a lack of compelling rationale linked to the availability of local content that drives users online.

The Rwandan Ministry of Youth and ICT recently worked with the Internet Society (whom Michael Kembe and Karen Rose represent) on a project to focus on improving the availability of local content. The project took as a starting point the observation that local content exists in many countries, including in Rwanda, but it is often hosted abroad, in low-cost data centres in Europe or the US. This has the impact of depressing the local market, as it is expensive to access content hosted abroad, and the resulting user experience is poor due to the delays in delivering it back to Rwanda.

Evidence shows that when content is hosted locally, and delays decrease, usage rises. The government of Rwanda has developed content to increase demand, and requires it to be hosted locally. Increasingly, international content such as YouTube videos, are available locally as well.

Providing incentives to host content locally provides alternatives for content providers, while making the internet more attractive for more citizens. Again, this is another important step in creating a thriving local internet ecosystem to help meet the economic and social goals of Rwanda and other countries.

The digital divide is not a gulf that can be easily bridged. Internet access is, of course, critical but must be affordable. Locally relevant content is also seen as increasingly critical, but again not sufficient to promote interest if the content is not available in an affordable and efficient manner.

If it were easy to eliminate the digital divide, it would have been achieved long ago. Instead, it requires a multi-faceted approach with clear and concerted government support – and a clear view that the end result is critical for providing economic opportunities and social inclusion for all citizens of each and every country.

Written by Hon Jean Philbert Nsengimana, Michael Kende and Karen Rose | Published by

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