Africa is getting connected and amazing things are happening, but there are still a load of challenges and even more potential left unfulfilled.
That might seem fairly obvious to anyone who watches the African tech scene, but it’s worth digging into further. And that’s where the research presented by Dalberg’s Robin Miller at the Google Big Tent event in Johannesburg today comes in.
Based on the company’s impact of the internet in Africa report, Miller’s talk delved into the good, bad and unfulfilled potential of the internet on the continent.
The most important piece of good news when it comes to the internet in Africa is that access is increasing. The continent is currently at 63% mobile penetration. And while internet access as a whole is still fairly low, at around 20%, it’s increasing all the time.
In time, a large part of these increases may come down to innovations around connectivity. Take a look at what Google and Microsoft are doing with TV white spaces, the work of TEAM Cables in Kenya, and Project Isizwe’s vision for free Wi-Fi across the continent for examples of how increasingly large numbers of people are coming online. That increased connectivity has helped foster a social boom, where companies like 2Go have more Nigerian users than Facebook does.
While that further fosters innovation, perhaps more important is the tangible effect the internet is having on established professions. Nurses in Kenya for instance are being trained nine times faster through e-learning. Small farmers meanwhile have been able to grow their income 15% by learning more about their markets and supply chains, says Dalberg.
Indeed, the country’s permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communications, Dr Bitange Ndemo, credits applications such as iCow for increases in the country’s agricultural sector.
Small wonder then that around 80% of small to medium-sized businesses surveyed by Dalberg were bullish about the fact that the internet could do big things for them and 70% of those expect to hire new employees as a result. At the very least that indicates that people understand and are willing to use the internet for their greater benefit.
Ultimately all that innovation, and receptivity to innovation, means that major investors are coming in. The likes of the Omidyar network, Tiger Global Management and Summit Partners have all put money into startups on the continent. As Africa’s tech space gets bigger the number of investors and the amount of money they put in are only going to increase.
Promising as the African tech and online space is however, it still faces some serious challenges. Despite access growing, it still has a long way to go. If 80% of Africa’s billion-strong population still don’t have access to the internet, there’s clearly a massive knowledge gap developing, to say nothing of the millions of businesses and customers it could help create.
One of the other serious issues identified by Dalberg is that a number of pilot projects in the social space especially aren’t scaling. Miller suggests that the problem there might lie with investors and the need for more diligence in getting projects to scale to the next level.
She adds that there’s also a real challenge around policy making. Dalberg’s research seems to show that even in countries where large-scale efforts have been made to increase connectivity, there often hasn’t been enough effort put into making sure that a broad spectrum of people benefit from that increased connectivity and that they’re equipped to use the new technologies fully.
The unfulfilled potential:
Those challenges mean that there’s a lot of unfulfilled potential in Africa. In order to fix that, says Miller, the core infrastructure and conditions for use have to be right. “Once you are online, is usage delivering serious impact?” she asks. It cannot just be a case of “if you build it they will come”, there’s also a clear need for continuous investment and infrastructure.
Recommendations for Africa:
But how do you address those challenges? Dalberg posits three steps people on the continent need to take:
- Invest in infrastructure: not just the physical infrastructure either, also think about how people will use that infrastructure.
- Look towards payment platforms and how they can translate conversations online into quantifiable economic value.
- Think about the ecosystem as a whole and understand the what policies need to be put in place to make it a viable one.