Closing the Internet Gap in Sub-Saharan Africa

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TACOMA, Washington — Zoom meetings, telehealth visits, online banking and virtual classrooms are now commonplace in American society. Popularized by the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, these internet-based services are now vital for economic recovery as populations lockdown to prevent infections. Unfortunately, the distribution of reliable internet-capable devices is not equal. Infrastructure in East Asia and the West is far outpacing developing countries in South Asia, South America and most notably Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is especially poor in internet connectivity. Only approximately 25% of its population had regular access in 2018. The lack of internet access is particularly critical during the pandemic as countries with better access to online platforms for business and education enjoy faster economic rebounds compared to unconnected economies.

Sub-Saharan Africa, with its growing population and unreliable economic growth, faces a looming crisis if it is not able to provide its students and workers with access to the internet. Some businesses are aware of the importance of bringing Africa online. They are seeking to meet this challenge with innovative solutions.

The Current State of Internet Infrastructure

In 2000, as the availability of the internet in the United States and Europe expanded exponentially, Africa remained severely underserved. According to the World Bank, at the time, the entire continent of Africa had less international internet bandwidth than the small nation of Luxembourg. Despite some investment over the last two decades, significant portions of Africa remain unconnected.

Today, sub-Saharan Africa represents 44% of the world’s unconnected population. Even the strong economic performers of the region like Nigeria and Kenya are struggling with internet connectivity. According to Pew Research, in 2017, 42% of Nigerians and 39% of Kenyans regularly access the internet, compared to 90% of Americans. The reliability of the internet in Africa is also questionable. Nearly 45% of Africans live further than 10 kilometers away from the network infrastructure essential for online services involving education, finance and healthcare. Current estimates suggest that nearly $100 billion in investment is required to connect all of Africa to the internet. Thus, considerable efforts are required to close the internet gap in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Importance of Internet Connectivity

Increasing the reliability and availability of internet connectivity to close the internet gap in sub-Saharan Africa is vitally important to improve economic growth and regional prosperity. Despite such limited access today, internet connectivity is seen as having a positive impact on life for the majority of the population in that region. In fact, nearly 80% of people believe it positively impacts education, and more than 60% believe it positively impacts the economy.

Furthermore, technology-based services are already playing vital roles in African society in services ranging from banking to healthcare. Kenya’s M-Pesa, an SMS text-based money transfer service, moves more than $8.8 billion annually, equivalent to 40% of the nation’s GDP. When EcoCash, an online banking service, offered services in Zimbabwe in 2011, it took fewer than 18 months to outnumber all of Zimbabwe’s traditional bank accounts combined. With enhanced internet infrastructure, these services could expand in capability and reach more people, helping Africans catch up to their peers across the world.

The Businesses Bringing Africa Online

Typical internet infrastructure involves expensive fiber optic and undersea cables coupled with centralized servers. The cost of developing and maintaining this infrastructure is high and often unaffordable for impoverished populations in both developed and developing nations.

SpaceX is a company famous for its reusable rockets and eccentric CEO Elon Musk. It is piloting a service known as Starlink that will attempt to provide satellite-based internet for millions across the world. Unlike other satellite-based internet providers that suffer from unreliable connections and slow data speeds, Starlink uses thousands of low orbit satellites that are connected with each other to deliver low-latency, high-speed internet comparable to current 4G data speeds. And, in 2021, Starlink intends to bring its services to help close the internet gap in sub-Saharan Africa.

Another U.S. company seeking to provide low-cost, high-quality internet access to sub-Saharan Africa is Silicon Valley giant Google. Its infrastructure project, known as Project Loon, currently provides 4G speed internet to rural Kenyan communities and operates by using internet-capable antennae that float on balloons high in the stratosphere. Google created the service to meet the U.N. Broadband Commission’s recommendation that internet costs should be less than 2% of per capita income for 1GB of data.

Connectivity in the Future

The novel coronavirus pandemic made Zoom meetings and virtual classrooms commonplace and led to the realization that the internet is no longer a luxury in the 21st century. With critically insufficient infrastructure, sub-Saharan Africa is falling behind other regions in its economic recovery as businesses and communities struggle to work in an increasingly online world. Fortunately, some U.S. firms view this challenge as an opportunity to connect American businesses with new African businesses online while also empowering them to compete in the global economy. Bringing sub-Saharan Africa online will require continued sustained investment, but innovative solutions are now paving the way for African companies to join the global market and prosper.

– Saarthak Madan
Photo: Flickr

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