Africa: The Internet’s final frontier

Africa InternetThe Internet is continuing to exert a significant social and economic impact in populations on each of Earth’s continents. The World Wide Web has been changing the way people learn and collaborate since August 1991, when the first website published information explaining hypertext and Web page architecture (Blum, 2011). The Web has persisted in paving virtual highways between people around the world – some sitting thousands of miles apart, others in the same room. But what about those populations that aren’t connected? Africa, the world’s second-largest and second most populated continent in the world, has only 118 million people online, just 11.5 percent of the people – well below the world’s average of 30 percent.

People who are connected are no longer bound by geographical boundaries, separated by political limitations or divided by religious beliefs. Unrestricted access to the Internet allows anyone to rally worldwide compassion for charities, organize populations for global initiatives and conduct international business transactions. According to recent research from the McKinsey Global Institute, e-commerce accounts for the exchange of almost $8 trillion each year. The Internet has accounted for 21 percent of the gross domestic product growth in “matured countries” for more than five years. A McKinsey global Small and Medium Enterprise survey discovered the Internet created 2.4 jobs for each one it destroyed during the past 15 years (Manyika & Roxburgh, 2011). The Web has become an important driver for both economic growth and social progress.

There are almost 7 billion people inhabiting Earth (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011), of which nearly 2.1 billion are Internet users (Miniwatts Marketing Group, 2011). About 30 years ago, desktop computers were mostly a tool for academics and government institutions. But today, more than 1 billion personal computers are used worldwide, a number that’s expected to swell to 2 billion by early 2014 (Gartner, Inc., 2008). China’s rapidly expanding economy is supported by about 144,000 Internet cafes, which are servicing more than a third of the developing country’s Web surfers (Kan, 2011).

Aside from desktop computers, there’s an expanding use of mobile technologies. Internet-ready tablet PCs are gaining market share (Kovar, 2011) and pocket-sized, smartphones are selling at about the same pace as laptop computers (Krazit, 2008). More than 800 million people use Facebook for social networking and almost half of the active users access the website on a mobile device (Facebook, 2011).

The world’s greatest Internet penetration is in North America, where an estimated 78 percent of the people are connected (Miniwatts Marketing Group, 2011). Political issues are gaining attention online in the United States, where citizens mostly use the Internet to send or receive email and find information with search engines (Pew Research Center, 2011). Thirty percent of adults surveyed in May 2010 said they look online for news or information about politics.

Social media penetrated the U.S. political environment during the 2010 midterm elections. Nearly three-quarters of adult Internet users went online to get news or information about the elections, or to get involved in the campaign (Smith, 2011a). Democratic voters dominated online social networks for political purposes during the 2008 presidential race, but Republican voters caught up with Democrats in 2010. More than half of the online Americans agree the Internet has made it easier to connect with others who share their own political views (Smith, 2011b).

While much of the world is connected to cyberspace, only 13 African nations boast an Internet penetration rate greater than 10 percent — Guinea, Sierra Leone, Niger, Liberia and Ethiopia are struggling with less than 1 percent (Miniwatts Marketing Group, Internet Usage Statistics for Africa, 2011). Coincidentally, these mostly unconnected nations also exhibit some of the world’s lowest export sales (Central Intelligence Agency, 2011a). Guinea raked in an estimated $1.39 billion in export revenues in 2010, but it’s the owner of almost half of the world’s bauxite reserves and controls a significant share of iron ore, gold and diamond. However, rampant corruption and political uncertainty in Guinea has drained investor confidence, robbing the people’s ability to profit at a peak potential (Central Intelligence Agency, 2011b). A similar state of degraded infrastructure and politics exists in other significantly disconnected countries.

The United Nations has underscored the unique and transformative nature of the Internet. Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, suggests the World Wide Web can “enable individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, but also a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole” (2011). He calls for concrete and effective policies that “make the Internet widely available, accessible and affordable to all segments of population.”

The suggestion of a greater presence of the Internet in Africa generates lively debates amongst pundits speculating about how its growth will change Africa and its people. Gordon Brown, former United Kingdom prime minister spoke to African Union leaders in July 2010 about Internet availability on the continent. According to Brown, “future growth in the world economy, and future jobs in the developing world, will depend on harnessing both the productive potential and the pent-up consumer demand of this continent” (Ross, 2010). Brown argued that Africa must make great technological leaps. He announced a campaign with African leaders to provide mass access to broadband Internet connections. “I truly believe that the rapid expansion of Internet access in Africa could transform how Africa trades, learns and holds political power accountable,” he said.

Nii Quaynor, an Internet guru in Ghana, says computers are as important for the future of Africa as food and water (Abraham, 2008). He established a networking company called Network Computer Systems in 1988, which became the first company in West Africa to supply Internet services by 1994. Young urban Ghanaians have been leveraging the Internet to maximize life options by making social contacts abroad (Fair, Tully, Ekdale, & Asante, 2009). According to Quaynor:

“The impact of a gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” in a knowledge-based global economy may be devastating. Digital rights are not too far from a right to education, for instance. I believe that Africa is about to miss a great development opportunity, in much the same way as it lost out in the industrial revolution, unless serious and committed efforts are made by Africa to address the rapid expansion of the digital divide” (Abraham, 2008).

MoroccoThe Internet’s greatest penetration in Africa is found in Morocco The country, slightly larger than California, contains about 32 million people (Central Intelligence Agency, 2011c). In 2000, less than 1 percent of the population had Internet access, which surged to 15 percent by 2007 (Miniwatts Marketing Group, 2011a). Today, more than 40 percent of the people use the Internet (Miniwatts Marketing Group, 2011b). PayPal officially started offering its services for e-commerce in October, which is expected to promote economic development (Mounadi, 2011). The first phase supports the tourist industry, while a second phase, planned for early 2012, involves a launch for the general public.

“Africa is a very important market and there are huge opportunities,” said Brett St Clair, head of Mobile Google in South Africa, discussing mobile technologies and its economic impact during a marketing and innovation forum in Johannesburg: “For every 1 percent of Internet users, there is 4.3 percent increase of exports … It’s all great that half of [the connected] Africans are accessing the Internet through their mobile devices, but we need to get more devices. Besides, the price of data is terrible, meaning we need cheaper data – that is Google’s mission in Africa.” (Sikiti da Silva, 2011)

St. Clair also noted Africa’s myriad of languages imposing a thick barrier. English is the dominant online language, representing roughly 565 million people, and about 510 million communicate in Chinese. The other most popular languages are Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese, German, Arabic, French, Russian and Korean, respectively (Miniwatts Marketing Group, 2011c). “There are over 2000 languages in Africa and we have to translate all these languages to help people fully understand the Internet,” said St. Clair (Sikiti da Silva, 2011). Google’s free online translation software currently supports 58 languages and has several others under development (Google Translate, 2011).

The Internet is connecting businesses, people and cultures. By ensuring everyone is afforded online access, the sweeping effects of globalization will help keep developing nations progressive. Moreover, the democratization of information using Web applications promotes political integrity and social responsibility. Nation leaders must develop policies and encourage funding, from private and government organization, to make the Internet widely accessible around the world.

Secretary of the Navy visits Ghana

Ray Mabus, U.S. Secretary of the Navy, greets Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, King of Ashanti, June 4, 2011, inside the Manhyia Palace in Kumasi, Ghana. (Official Navy Photo)

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