This piece first appeared in Open Africa, a custom digital publication by Ornico that features interviews, insights and business lessons from some of Africa’s leading CEOs, innovators and decision makers.
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Benjamin Franklin didn’t have the internet in mind when he said, “Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement and success have no meaning.” But these words have never been more true in an era that relies on ever faster, ever more efficient digital technology.
Information communication technology has become central to our lives. In 2012, the UN declared internet freedom a basic human right, and recently the World Economic Forum called for access to the internet to be made available to all – declaring it a universal right, like clean water, sanitation and shelter.
Our cellphones provide us with entertainment and human contact, our computers link us to the world of information and knowledge. Mobile technology and big data now enable businesses to engage people in a more intimate and insightful way. Business and society are evolving in order to compete, using innovation, which will inevitably result in growth.
Things have changed in mere decades. In the connected global society we live in, it is impossible to conduct business or engage socially without social media – without a digital device in our hands, we are lost.
Young adults tend towards nontraditional media for entertainment and information – including news. This is leading to less engagement with outdated media outlets. All businesses therefore need to look beyond the scope of their current product offering, and consider how technology can be used to innovate, and connect with these connected customers.
In Africa, the discourse around the economy, technology and society has mainly been limited to the effects of the digital divide. Setting this debate aside, crucial elements need to be measured and better acknowledged in order to identify areas where we can improve as a society instead of becoming passive victims to the changes around us.
In South Africa, issues of internet connectivity—especially broadband—and data costs need to be addressed. If we can improve these, the result will be economic independence and economic empowerment. When comparing Africa to the rest of the developing world, it is evident that as a continent we still have a long way to go in terms of internet connectivity. An article by Elsie Kanza, Head of Africa at the World Economic Forum, indicates that African internet users are documented at around 20%. This is significantly lower than European figures which indicate that 77% of people have access to the internet. What is important to take out of Kanza’s article is that it is crucial to break away from this ‘digital poverty’. Remaining in this situation will detrimentally affect our productivity and future potential.
Further statistics show that internet is mostly accessed through the use of mobile broadband, rather than fixed line broadband. There is no doubt that the more access people have to internet, the greater the likelihood that ideas can circulate and more possibilities can be achieved.
The use of smartphones has definitely helped people to access content wherever they may be. However, no matter how desirable it is that people are making use of the internet, it remains crucial for entrepreneurs and individuals to access faster and better internet, to satisfy their growing social and business demands. The issue of affordability is equally important.
More affordable broadband would mean that content creators are able to support their ideas, whilst users are able to access content without restriction. It would be impractical for a business to provide a specialised app if its clients are unable to use it due to the cost of data.
In SA, affordability is a major concern. Neither fixed line nor mobile broadband is reliable or accessible enough. More importantly, it is expensive – internet access remains a luxury that is monopolised by
mobile networks and broadband suppliers.
Civil society should put more pressure on mobile network operators and broadband suppliers, to reduce the data fees they control. Despite high demand by consumers, local mobile operators exploit their customers and gouge profits. By bundling data packages, and creating pricing schemes that encourage users to buy more data rather than be hit with out of bundle costs, operators also maximise their profits at the
expense of the consumer.
Users with smartphones rely more and more on data rather than voice services, and are thus at the mercy of operators, who purchase their bandwidth in bulk. These practices verge on the monopolistic, as there seems to be a tacit collusion between data providers to keep prices high. In pure capitalistic terms this is the law of supply and demand in action, but the fact is that connectivity is no longer a luxury; it should be seen as a public good.
South Africa is slowly starting to catch up with developed countries, by making free WiFi more accessible – for example in Tshwane, where Project Isizwe has rolled out a number of free 24- hour hotspots in public spaces.
Johannesburg recently announce plans for a similar project, but overall SA lags behind the rest of the developed world, where every Starbucks coffee shop provides free WiFi, and municipalities provide access through libraries and other public places.
Of course, for a brand like Starbucks, it makes good business sense: people who are comfortable and connected will stay longer and buy more coffee. It’s time for South African developers and internet activists to take the initiative. Whether it be through putting pressure on service providers or on legislators, there is a pressing need for solutions that will stimulate economic and social well-being. Sitting idle in a time when there is so much development and change is not an option: we need to be part of a global community that shares knowledge, acknowledges trends and creates change. In this way we can gain access to international markets.
Artificial Intelligence, using Big Data, has been found to be effective at providing businesses with more intimate, more impactful customer touch points, in this new era of ecommerce. But expensive data and poor connectivity will hamper South African entrepreneurs’ ability to play on the world stage. We have to actively create a digital environment that promotes growth, and for this we need better, cheaper internet access.
All photographs used in this piece courtesy of Ken Banks at kiwanja.net.