Geographies in Depth

Only 20% of Africans use the internet – we must fix this digital poverty now

Students use computers to study at Elswood Secondary School in Cape Town November 7, 2013.

Too many people in Africa don't have internet access Image: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Elsie S. Kanza
Ambassador of the United Republic of Tanzania to the USA and Mexico, Embassy of the United Republic of Tanzania in the USA
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum on Africa

The one thing I love most about my job is the countless brilliant, inspirational people I invariably get to meet when I am in Africa. As you can imagine, they are a diverse bunch: the Rwandan techpreneur pioneering smart card solutions for public transport; the Nigerian Global Shaper tracking an election tribunal via #TrackAkwaIbom; the South African innovator developing digital currency to expand opportunities for vulnerable youth in townships; the Ghanaian serial entrepreneur disrupting tertiary education with the Africa Leadership University; the Tanzanian start-up developing edu-cartoons; and the young scientists at the cutting edges of malaria research, the semantic web or the study of time. Or the people behind the project I was introduced to last month who aim to spearhead Africa’s space revolution by launching a constellation of communications satellites built by schoolgirls across the continent.

This all serves as proof, if ever any was needed, that Africa’s people – its greatest resource – collectively have the energy and talent to create a rich future for the continent. Couple this human ingenuity with the fact that technology has already helped bring about vast improvements in the way the region governs, feeds, lives, educates, trades and interacts with itself, and you have to conclude that the priority of every African leader today should be figuring out how to unleash this force for good as quickly as possible.

What would an ecosystem capable of supporting a smarter Africa look like? At the World Economic Forum, as part of our project on the Future of the Internet, we have done some work on this. We know that you need – alongside internet access – affordability, rich local content, a tech savvy population and an encouraging entrepreneurial environment.

Creating this ecosystem should not be an insurmountable task. After all, mobile telephony – perhaps the continent’s first genuine region-wide infrastructure – has already brought huge transformation in a relatively short amount of time. Imagine what Africa could achieve if the same levels of enthusiasm were matched in the development of a vibrant internet? Our region could be a leader in the growth of the blockchain revolution, for example, to name just one transformational new technology. And what if we were able to do what other regions of the world have so far failed to and develop a digital single market? Africa’s trading partners would then be seeking to follow for a change.

Initiatives like this will only work if everyone has access to the internet in the first place. For too many of us, this critical first step is still lacking. In fact, according to figures from the International Telecommunications Union, just over 20% of Africans have internet access.


Ahead of the 2016 World Economic Forum on Africa, which takes place in Kigali on May 11-13, the Global Shapers, over 1,000 young people across 94 cities in Africa with the drive to make a contribution to their communities, are launching an #internet4all conversation. They will build on the traditional Rwandan culture of Umuganda, which means “coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome”. Their hope is to lead grassroots conversations about the opportunities and challenges related to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We believe that, in the 21st century, this essential infrastructure should be available to everybody. Because, after all, all Africans want is the chance to create for themselves the future that they deserve.

Call to Action: how does #internet4all impact your life? Please join the conversation and put your issue on the agenda in Kigali.

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