Digital Africa

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Essays

Ethan Zuckerman is a leading thinker on the internet based at Harvard University. His blog, entitled My Heart’s in Accra, speaks to his long association with Africa. He arrived in Ghana from New England in 1993, on a Fulbright scholarship, to learn African drumming. Every few weeks he would wander down to the central post office in Accra and place a phone call to his future wife in the United States. The line was indistinct and the call cost $5 a minute. His Macbook 1000 died after two weeks in the humidity. On the other side of Africa, Joe Mucheru, a Kenyan who now heads Google’s Africa office, remembers the internet kicking off in Kenya in 1994. Yahoo! and Hotmail e-mail accounts became popular in 1998. The government held onto internet access as a cash cow. Everything was rotten and dormant. “I didn’t know you could make money from air,” said a Kenyan minister, delightedly. But corrupt governments could, simply by withholding access. A 64k modem cost $16,000 a month, if you could get one. By 2000, the price dropped to $3,600. Soon after, as a result of legal challenges and pressure from tech enthusiasts and entrepreneurs, the Kenyan government agreed to open up to competition. For those with the money to buy the new modems, the change was instant, both in terms of information and speed. The post in most African countries was expensive and slow. Parcels frequently went missing (they still do), and there was no home delivery, just post-office boxes. Similarly, African governments had never had the money or the inclination to set up libraries; even university libraries were shoddy, so up-to-date printed material was hard to come by. Then, suddenly, there was the internet, with a cornucopia of knowledge on gardening, or cancer, or the stars of “Friends”.

Plugging a PC into the world wide web was only part of the story. Cheap Chinese black-and-white television sets hit the African market around the same time. For $50, poorer families in towns and cities suddenly had access to what had previously been an elite colonial medium. That stirred up the continent. Then came mobile phones. In 2000 Kenya’s largest mobile-phone operator, Safaricom, had 20,000 customers. Executives at Vodafone, which then owned Safaricom, reckoned that number would grow to 400,000, peaking around now. That was before cheap phones and prepaid airtime. Safaricom now has 12m customers and is the most profitable business in east Africa. Its biggest achievement has been M-Pesa, a service which allows people to send each other money over their mobiles. M-Pesa will move at least $1 billion in Kenya alone this year. Michael Joseph, the South African-born executive who masterminded Safaricom’s rise, claims it as “the greatest-ever innovation in the mobile-phone industry”.

Digital Africa

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