Why Africa needs to get connected

People use computers at an internet cafe. Image: Reuters/Feisal Omar

Anna Easton
Connected Society programme director, BT
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Africa is a continent of extremes. This year Africa Internet Group (AIG) became the continent’s first “unicorn” (a privately held company valued at $1 billion or more). AIG has been heralded as a by-word for the continent’s economic success, not surprising when we consider African economies have recorded the fastest economic growth worldwide over the last ten years. Juxtapose this with extremes of deep and indefensible poverty and deprivation in some of the continent’s countries.

The World Bank estimates 330 million Africans live on less than $1.25 a day with the number living in poverty increasing since 1990. As wealth and growth are created, we have a duty to ensure their benefits are felt by everyone, from top to bottom.

I believe one key to unlocking this challenge is connectivity.

Consider that Africa’s unicorn is an internet based tech company. Smartphone technology penetration has exploded. In Ghana ownership has increased tenfold from 8% to 83% since 2002. Uber-style apps like Safeboda, which connects passengers with accredited motorbike taxis, are receiving backing from the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) through foundations like the Global Innovation Fund.

Africa’s internet and tech economy is booming. But its internet isn’t.

Approximately 160 million people across the busiest transport route in East and Central Africa, the Northern Corridor, don’t have access to the internet. The effects can be felt across all areas of society, from the online resources children in classrooms don’t have access to, to the e-commerce opportunities African small businesses are missing out on.

The hurdles to connecting the Continent are clear. In addition to the clear need for fundamental improvements in infrastructure, cost is a major factor. Africans need to pay ten times as much of their salary for broadband as people in the rest of the world. Power is also another major challenge, in Rwanda, host nation of WEF Africa, only 18% of people have full access to electricity.

In the face of these complex and numerous challenges we need creative, and scalable solutions to ensure the future connectivity of Africa. Practicality is also of chief importance - digital ecosystems that produce locally relevant content are vital for attracting local users and serving the needs of individual communities. Understanding this is key to stimulating innovation and boosting competition in local markets.

I’m proud of the work we as a company do in enabling and effecting connectivity in Africa. Since 2013 we’ve been working with SOS Children’s Villages, a pan-African charity which provides homes to orphaned and vulnerable young people in some of Africa’s poorest countries.

This Connecting Africa programme has seen us provide broadband services via satellite to SOS villages across 13 countries from Malawi to Mali. BT’s technology has already reached nearly 145,000 people and with this connectivity in place, many more lives are being transformed in classrooms, clinics and communities.

The effects are clear. When children have access to the internet, they use it to study. 88% of children in our pilot did so. Use ICT to introduce a healthcare management system and doctors tell how they can spend more time with patients. Share the connectivity with the local communities and people can keep in touch without having to travel.

Organisations like One Million Community Health Workers (1mCHW), which accelerates the attainment of universal health coverage in rural sub-Saharan Africa, is using ICT to support their mission to train more health workers and improve access to health care. Community health workers in Ghana are using mobile technology and tools to help them help more people in their own neighbourhoods.

Projects like these succeed because they are built upon the premises of opportunity, sustainability and scalability. Connectivity is a life-changing opportunity for everyone.

We wholeheartedly believe in the role of connectivity in improving lives, and Connecting Africa has given us the opportunity to show how this can be done.

This year’s WEF gathering presents a unique opportunity to discuss the connectivity solutions that Africa so desperately needs. It’s not just governments or the heads of billion dollar companies that stand to benefit from a connected Africa – the opportunities are endless, and the rewards will be enjoyed by all.

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