Marrakech is one of the best known cities in Africa, famous for its tourism, cultural diversity and lively markets. The city also has a highly qualified youth population, a vibrant start-up scene and the most advanced university in Morocco. However, if you go online and carry out some research on the city, most of the search results will be related to tourist spots. The city’s real wealth – its culture, identity and community – is hidden.

Unfortunately, Marrakech is not the exception in Morocco, or indeed Africa. In fact, most African cities lack a strong presence and visibility on the internet, which results in poor participation in local development.

The continent scores poorly for internet usage – only 7% of global internet users are in Africa. According to the World Economic Forum’s Networked Readiness Index 2014, part of this year’s Global Information Technology Report, the only African nation in the top 50 is Mauritius, in 48th place; next is South Africa, ranked number 70, and then Rwanda at 85.

This digital divide doesn’t just exist between Africa and the rest of the world; it also exists between countries within the continent. Morocco and other North African countries have made a huge effort to improve their information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure; the number of internet users in the region jumped 710,000 users in 2000 to more than 56 million users in 2014.

This variation in pace of development has widened the digital divide between northern and southers African countries, making the building of a pan-African collaboration even more difficult.

In 2009, a friend and I launched a project called BuzzTaVille, aimed at creating a chain of community-powered web hubs in different Moroccan cities, providing information on investment, jobs, trading and other practical information. Lack of finance put the project on stand-by until it was relaunched this year, but the enthusiasm for the project showed that there is a need in our cities for online services with a local focus.

Our project, and others like it, has to cope with the challenge of low internet usage rates and, because infrastructure is so poor, the high cost of having it. Fortunately, Africa can still rely on satellites, mobile phones and VSATs (Very Small Aperture Terminals) to get online.

Governments can also play a crucial role in getting more people online, by improving access to electricity, creating partnerships with telecom companies and making the integration of ICTs in different sectors one of the country’s main priorities.

And as mobile technology spreads across Africa, opening up the market for different providers could help reduce the cost of services – including for internet. Meanwhile, universities should be engaged to educate students and communities on the many opportunities ICTs can bring them.

The benefits of improving the ICT ecosystem in Africa will be felt by all of us. E-commerce will generate wealth and jobs, while unlimited online learning materials will help Africa challenge on skills and innovation. By getting more people online, African countries can help treat some of the most pressing issues facing the continent.

Author: Oussama Abdellah Benhmida, General Manager, Lab4Net, Morocco; Global Shaper

Image: A man browses the internet on his mobile phone at a beach in Mogadishu, Somalia, January 10, 2014. REUTERS/Feisal Omar