Africa’s great digital divide

You´re more likely to have access to the internet as a wealthy man in a coastal country,

Only 10 countries in the region have mobile-cellular prices that are at least as affordable as the average in other regions

 TECH start-ups coming out of Africa have blossomed in the past few years, putting the continent on the digital innovation map. Two examples are Kenya’s mobile money transfer service M-Pesa which is now being offered by Vodafone in Asian markets and Ushahidi – a crowdsourcing platform that has monitored everything from disasters to elections and used the world over.

Recently, at the 14th annual Innovation Africa Digital Summit, a new crop of African tech start-ups took to the stage – everything from apps which plan train journeys to insurance comparison platforms – showing just how much growth there is around ICT in Africa.

This growth is accelerated by the increases in funding that African tech startups have been receiving. According to data compiled by Disrupt Africa, in 2015 this was in excess of $185million. The top three destinations for tech investors being South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya both in terms of numbers of deals and total amount of funding.

The flurry of growth in this sector has had McKinsey predict that Africa’s iGDP should grow to at least 5 – 6% and, if the internet achieves the same kind of scale and impact as the spread of mobile phones, it could account for as much as $300 billion of total GDP while producing a leap forward in economic and social development.

But the questions remains on just how connected the continent actually is today and whether Africans are well-placed to take advantage of it.

According to findings from the 2015 Measuring the Information Society Report, by the International Telecommunication Union, the answer is if you’re an African man living in an urban area of an African country with a coastline, your chances of accessing the internet and benefitting from it, are considerably higher than anyone else’s.

The level of connectivity on the continent is low and highly unequal and, while potential access through mobile-phone subscriptions are higher, as of November 2015, 71.4% of Africa’s population did not have access to the internet.

ICT Development Index

One of the core features of the MIS Report is the ICT Development Index (IDI). This year’s report analyses ICT developments over the past five years and showed that all of the 167 economies improved their IDI values between 2010 and 2015. This is good news and reflects the continuous evolvement of the global information society.

In Africa’s case however it found that in spite of the relatively high rate of growth in IDI values over the period – about 35% – Africa is not experiencing sufficient growth to reduce its relative disadvantage and so reduce the digital divide between it and other regions.

The continent featured heavily at the lower end of the rankings – Mauritius was the highest ranking country and only came in 73rd place. 43 countries had IDI values below 3.00, of these, 32 are located on the African continent, the lowest ten countries in the rankings are all low income countries in Africa. Here there has been relatively little change over the period since 2010.

Digital divides are found within the countries too and result from differences in the quality of available networks as well as basic connectivity. For example, there are substantial differences in telephone and internet penetration between urban and rural areas.

Lack of access

Africa achieves a lower ICT density level than other regions which is illustrated by the data for mobile phone and broadband subscriptions.

Access is key and countries at the bottom of the distribution reported only limited improvements in terms of access, with one country, Madagascar, managing to increase its value by no more than 0.03 points.

This is probably not helped by the high costs of mobile-cellular services cost between $5 – $20 per month in most African countries, a price range similar to that observed in the Arab States.

Data from Africa showed that only ten countries in the region have mobile-cellular prices that are at least as affordable as the average in other regions.The top ten countries with the most affordable mobile-cellular prices in Africa include the economies with the highest income per capita in the region, such as Equatorial Guinea, Seychelles, Gabon, Mauritius, Botswana and South Africa.

Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria are also among the top ten African countries with affordable mobile-cellular services because of the low mobile-cellular prices offered.

But there was also plenty of growth too – over five years Ghana saw by far the highest improvement in access, raising its score by 2.37 points, from 2.15 to 4.51 between 2010 and 2015. Double-digit improvements in the rankings were also made by five countries; Cape Verde, Lesotho, Mozambique, Cameroon and Mali.

High costs

The cost and affordability of ICT services remain a determining factor for ICT uptake. There is ample evidence that, despite a consistent drop in ICT prices over recent years, the relatively high price of ICT services remains a major barrier, particularly for those ICT services that are far from reaching global coverage, such as broadband services.

Africa has few countries with affordable entry level fixed-broadband plans and many where the service remains beyond the reach of most people – the high cost in lower-income countries of broadband subscriptions is beyond the reach of Africa’s more numerous low income households.

Six African countries – Seychelles, South Africa, Mauritius, Gabon, Cape Verde and Botswana ? offer basic fixed-broadband plans at prices corresponding to 5% or less of average income per capita.

In almost half of the African LDCs, 31 including Uganda, Rwanda and the Central African Republic, the price actually exceeds average income per capita levels.

The service is even more unaffordable in landlocked Africa, including Rwanda, Chad, Burundi and Burkina Faso.

Mobile broadband is the only de facto option for accessing broadband Internet services for most of the population in developing countries, given the limited capacity and reach of fixed infrastructure. Some countries in Africa have remarkably low mobile-broadband prices, for example Mozambique for prepaid handset-based mobile-broadband services.

However, the Africa region stands out as the region in the world where mobile-broadband services are the most expensive. Indeed, the average corresponds to more than 15% of the income per capita for handset-based mobile broadband, and about 30% for computer-based mobile broadband.

Things get even more challenging when you’re a woman.

It is generally agreed that the gender digital divide stems primarily from the structural inequalities that exist between men and women in many societies. This means that women are less likely to reap the benefits of new economic and social opportunities of ICT, including employment and access to money.

For now a significant digital divide persists in Africa which continues, predominantly because of affordability, to lock many people out of budding ICT opportunities. Nevertheless, given the huge strides the continent has achieved in mobile phone uptake, once the cost comes down, the speed at which this divide could be eliminated could turn around very quickly.