The Grand Signal

A digital magazine covering the intersection of technology, human rights and social change.

Is Africa’s technology revolution all hype?

Photo courtesy of IICD via Flickr |

In an earlier article, we mentioned how Safaricom, the leading communications service provider in Kenya has contributed greatly to the proliferation of technology devices in Kenya. Today, about 16 million Kenyans are connected to the internet, up 12% from the previous year. Even more impressive is that Africa had 650 million mobile subscribers in 2012, more than the US and EU. This isn’t the whole story though. Internet quality in Africa is still quite poor and still isn’t completely accessible to those in the poorer income brackets. The truth is that the technology revolution in Africa though real to some extent, has been greatly exaggerated.

Information and communications technology (ICT) has had an evident economic impact in Africa, but it hasn’t been evenly distributed across the continent and within countries. In Kenya for instance, internet penetration was 41% by December 31 of last year. Meanwhile, internet access in Sierra Leone was only at around 1%. When evaluating the quality of internet connectivity, the situation looks even less impressive. Data conducted by the M-lab revealed that South Africa has one of the slowest download speeds at 0.33 Mbps measured this past May. As a reference, the average download speed in the US is at around 7.4 Mbps.

Critics argue that the technology revolution is still at a very nascent stage having only started 5 years ago, which means there’s still a long time to go before we witness significant improvements. So who’s to blame for the hype? Part of it stems from the media celebrating small successes. The successful run of test pilots and prototypes are things we should certainly look at in a positive matter, but it’s only the first step. Rarely does the media paint a truly accurate picture of how things are.

The initiatives from Google’s Project Loon and Zuckerberg’s manifesto to improve internet connectivity in rural areas are good signs for the future of ubiquitous internet access in Africa. To point out though, Zuckerberg failed to mention how he will deal with building out the infrastructure in these rural areas, which could pose a problem towards his quest to connect the world.

Africa is changing in front of our eyes. A decade ago it would be hard to believe that there would be this many mobile devices today let alone a mobile payment system. Much work is still to be done however, as countries still struggle with reducing the income gap. It’s dangerous to think in terms of averages and aggregates, since this type of thinking will result in those at the ‘tail end’ to be neglected.

For more detail on the topic of this post, watch the video from BBC’s Lesley Curen here

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