Africa has 333 million mobile subscribers, and it is one of the fastest growing markets for wireless phones. However, less than ten percent of the continent’s population has access to the Internet. Compare that to the 77.3 percent of the users in the United States who have access to the Internet. Africa’s low broadband penetration limits the ability of its nations to harness the economic growth that often accompanies the spread of Internet access. Also, the cost of Internet and phone service in Africa is the highest in the world. Despite these challenges, efforts are underway to bridge the digital divide in Africa by expanding broadband penetration and building services that leverage the increased connectivity of the African population.
Laying the Foundation
The future of Africa’s Internet access can be found found under the sea. That is where 14 fiber-optic cables will soon link the continent to European and Asian data centers. These connections will triple that amount of bandwidth that is available today.
However, high speed connections have to go beyond the coastlines. Countries like Rwanda are spending millions of dollars to set up a fiber-optic infrastructure. This will allow communities within African countries to more easily communicate with each other as well as with the world outside of Africa. By improving Internet access, Africans will gain access to the most important commodity in the modern world: information.
The Mobile Solution
As fiber optic connections lower the price of internet access, companies are creating services to benefit African mobile subscribers. For example, M-PESA (the M stands for ‘mobile’ and pesa is Swahili for money) was created by Sagentia to provide a solution to the banking problem in Africa. Local banks often charge high interest rates for loans and are difficult to get to due to poor roads. M-PESA allows users to make deposits, withdraw money, transfer money to other people, and pay their bills by using their mobile phone. Users also get access to the competitive loan rates offered by microfinance institutions.
The Promise of Africa
As electronic signals find faster paths through the African continent and mobile phones increase in power and functionality, the people of Africa will have the opportunity to guide their own technology boom. While programs like MIT’s Africa Information Technology Initiative (AITI) show that institutions across the globe are rushing to invest in Africa, the success of local grassroots technology initiatives like Kenya’s Malili “techtropolis”, Voice of Kiberia, and iHub seem more satisfying. By empowering local Africans with the tools to chart their own future, Africa will blaze its own unique trail of innovation.