Trends

The road ahead in the quest for access

Patchkabel computer NetzwerkLooking back upon 2014, one of the more striking tech stories has been the rate at which ICT continues to penetrate, and emerge from within, Africa.

By Daniel Gottlieb

Increased investment in infrastructure has brought down the cost of Internet throughout parts of the continent, and mobile-broadband penetration climbed to almost 20%, up from less than 2% in 2010.

Many analysts expect this boost in mobile and Internet access will lead to further growth in Internet-related businesses, startups and services, and in turn economic growth, with the World Bank noting that a 10% increase in connectivity corresponds with a 1.38% increase in GDP.

This also promises to have a pronounced influence on the way regular individuals engage with commerce, education and industry, and thus impact society more broadly. We take a look at how these trends may continue throughout 2015.

Internet penetration and spread – across regions and to the home

In order to adequately maximise the benefits of ICT innovation and growth in Africa, the tech space itself will continue to expand beyond its current borders. Although the number of Internet users stands at around 26.5% of the population, up from 16% towards the end of 2013, the latest International Telecommunications Union (ITU) report states that 29 out of 38 African countries analysed are considered to be the least connected countries in the world.

However, the past year did see the announcement of a number of notable private and public ventures to spread Internet access and connectivity to previously untouched areas and demographies.

Amongst much investment from foreign tech giants, there was also Mauritius-based Liquid Telecom’s US$34m Rwandan investment plan which, on the back of its East Africa Fibre Ring initiative will lay Fibre To The Home (FTTH) in Kenya and Uganda in the coming years, and also facilitate neighbouring countries to interconnect with its Rwanda network.

Although fibre-optic cables have become the affordable solution for most parts of Africa – 16 undersea cables now connect much of the continent to the Americas, Europe and Asia – many remote areas still lack suitable infrastructure.

Over the coming year, new innovative solutions such as drones and balloon-powered Internet will be tested to reach these remote areas. For example, Google’s Project Loon aims to create an aerial wireless network of balloons that will float on currents in the stratosphere, 10 to 50 kilometres above the Earth’s surface.

On the policy and reform side, the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) has been making progress in its aim to drive down the cost of Internet throughout the continent. In 2014, the organisation – which brings together public sector, private sector and NGOs – signed a MOU with the Mozambican government to reduce barriers to Internet access, and also influenced the Ghanaian government’s commitment to scrap hefty import duties on smartphones.

Mobility and connectivity: smartphone affordability

The fast-growing market for mobile devices looks to be the strongest trend that will support development in areas such as education, agriculture and health.

The increase in smartphone companies throughout the continent has led to a veritable explosion in cheap phones on the market, with many expecting prices to continue to drop in 2015. Just a few weeks into the year and Microsoft has already unveiled the world’s cheapest smartphone – the Nokia 215 retails at just $29.

With the new affordability of smartphones, it is likely that a significant share of new connections to the Internet will occur through mobile technologies overtaking fixed connections through laptops and PCs. With outlooks projecting 334 million African smartphone connections in 2017, a wealth of new ICT development services and business opportunities will open up, serving the specific needs of newly-connected users.

A light on in Africa:  electrification and education

The United Nations has designated 2015 the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies, aiming to raise awareness of light science and how light-based technologies promote sustainable development and provide solutions to global challenges such as energy, education, agriculture and health.

The organisation’s data estimates that approximately 25-30% of schools in Africa have access to electricity, hampering access to the new educational tools and technologies that will empower social mobility and the alleviation of poverty across the continent. Moreover, recent studies suggest that a 1% increase in the electrification rate in developing countries can lead to an increase of 0.166 % in literacy.

Poor access to electricity is in part due to the expensive and unreliable nineteenth Century grid being the only option for many communities. Therefore, there is an increased push to find ways to replace the old system, as new technologies continue to open up the possibility of spreading electrification affordably and efficiently.

In the World Economic Forum’s 2020 tech predictions, AutoGrid CEO Amit Narayan said he believes this shift will be achievable: “The advent of new technologies is changing both the business models and use-case scenarios to make it possible. In a few years, the world will finally, truly, be wired.”

Some noteworthy moves…

The proliferation of connectivity across the continent means that one can expect a number of interesting changes within the educational and development landscape in the forthcoming year, catered specifically to African contexts. This includes an extension of peer-to-peer applications and online services for new infrastructure changes. M-KOPA, for example, has already initiated ‘pay-as-you-go’ energy services for off-grid customers; while Esoko, a communications platform in Ghana, gives farmers the opportunity to access market prices for goods and then buy, sell or place orders. Sidmach technologies has partnered with the National Educational Research and Development Council (NERDC) in Nigeria to introduce the e-Curriculum portal to schools, while Philips and AMREF have collaborated on developing innovative online educational pathways for healthcare education and infrastructure efficacy.

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