Magazine article New African

Getting People Online Makes Good Business Sense: Access to the Internet in Africa-Or Rather the Lack of It-Is a Massive Issue and Providing Connectivity to More People on the Continent, Could Be a Game-Changer in Terms of Development

Magazine article New African

Getting People Online Makes Good Business Sense: Access to the Internet in Africa-Or Rather the Lack of It-Is a Massive Issue and Providing Connectivity to More People on the Continent, Could Be a Game-Changer in Terms of Development

Article excerpt

Despite the astonishing growth of the worldwide web since its inception, over two decades ago, only 26.5% of the African population is connected to the internet, with a recent United Nations report saying Sub-Saharan African countries accounted for eight of the 10 that have the lowest levels of internet availability in the world.

According to the World Bank, a 10% increase in broadband connectivity can result in a 1.38% increase in GDP. The Technology and Social Change Group at the University of Washington's Information School says community access to ICT is vital if people are to be connected to information and skills.

With this in mind, a number of global tech corporates have been rolling out initiatives aimed at bringing down the cost of connectivity and making it available in more rural areas. This is not a CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) initiative, these companies realise their future customer acquisition strategies depend on getting more Africans online.

Google has launched Project Loon--which involves signals submitted from balloons 18 kilometres above the earth being received by specialised internet aerials. Facebook has pioneered Internet.org, a zero-rated app offering users access to services such as Facebook, the BBC and Wikipedia in countries such as Kenya, Zambia and Ghana. Microsoft is experimenting with TV white space technology, which utilises unused radio spectrum to provide Wi-Fi connectivity.

Bridging the internet gap

Increasingly, however, there are local solutions to this most local of problems. One of these is the BRCK, originally conceived by Kenyan crowdmapping company Ushahidi but since spun out as a separate entity. The BRCK is a rugged, self-powered, mobile Wi-Fi device, able to connect people to the internet in areas of the world with poor infrastructure. The modem-cum-router allows for internet connectivity in rural areas without access to fibre or power.

For BRCK co-founder Erik Hersman, tackling the digital divide in rural areas is key to increasing access to online services across Africa as a whole.

"The digital divide in Africa is not between rich and poor, it's between urban and rural," Hersman says. "This isn't just due to lack of population density, which scares away the telcos and their 3G-enabled towers, which is how the internet gets to rural areas. It's also due to the lack of capital for them to upgrade their personal devices. You are more likely to find a smartphone in an urban centre like Nairobi than you are in a tertiary town in central Kenya."

The prototyping of the BRCK began in 2011, and went on for a year and a half. This was the easy part, however, with Hersman saying the real challenge and expense then came at the production stage. Luckily, the idea proved popular with investors large and small. The company tested the market with a Kickstarter campaign, which raised $72,000, before seeking a full investment round last year, during which it raised $1.2 million.

The $199 BRCK device is now being shipped, with Hersman saying uptake has been fantastic. "We nave sold thousands of units into 54 countries across the world to date," he says. Though it is priced for the African market, the company still makes a profit from each device, with Hersman saying the company has identified certain key sectors --education and SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises)--to enable it to scale initially.

"There's a large and growing demand for edtech [educational technology] solutions across Africa, and the BRCK as the key aid for both content storage and connectivity continues to be the right answer for injecting technology into schools," he says. …

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