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The internet today can increase a country’s GDP. Where will it be tomorrow?

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When Mike Lawrie fretted and sweated to connect Africa to the internet he expected a handful of dusty academics to use it. A quarter of a century on, African truck drivers, domestic workers and office clerks can’t live without it – the internet in Africa is as much a part of living as is breathing for millions.

“We know internet use in most of the continent has been growing. But it’s not even. So you have countries like South Africa and Kenya on the one hand where many people are using the internet. Then you have Ethiopia, the second largest population in Africa, and very few use the internet,” says Indra de Lanerolle, head of the South African Network Society project at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), in Johannesburg.

De Lanerolle is the author of The New Wave, a paper released in 2012 that looked at the internet users of Africa.

“The internet has grown, but there is one thing that hasn’t… fixed lines. Traditionally you would connect with a PC. But only two percent of households have a fixed line. PC penetration hasn’t been going up much. In that context it’s not surprising that it leaves us with mobile and mobile devices.”

“It’s a success story in one way that this infrastructure works. But it’s also evidence of a failure in another. Many African countries have failed to deliver those other networks, or they are way too expensive.”

Internet on the move is expensive. Net costs are high, which means the poor, without PCs, surf less.

“You are buying data in sachet size bytes, 5MB at a time, and you are rationing yourself. Our research shows you are very biased against services when you know how much data they use. One of the good things about Facebook is lowering the data consumption in order to use it.”

Internet means economic growth, says Ibrahima Guimba-Saidou, Senior Vice President Commercial Africa at SES.

“According to our research, if a developing nation has 10 percent more broadband connectivity, it results in a 1.38 percent GDP growth for that country. It is expected that Africa’s population will double to 2.4 billion people by 2050. In 20 years, the number of cities in Africa with over 10 million inhabitants will double. Remote areas are pulling African economies down. Today, over 300 million Africans live more than 50 kilometers from the nearest fiber or cable broadband connection – 400 million people have no internet access at all, that’s 700 million unconnected people. This equates to 60 to 70 percent of the African population living in remote areas, cut off from the bigger cities without access to information and the necessary facilities required for sustainable growth. These people, by no fault of their own, are pulling their country backwards as they are not able to contribute to the economy, as much as they no doubt would want to,” says Guimba-Saidou.

Language is also a barrier, says De Lanerolle. The language of technology tends to be in English, French or Portuguese, making it difficult for those who don’t speak them to navigate on their phones.

“At a bank machine you can get numerous languages but on an app its less. In general e-commerce is generally English in South Africa. If I am a Sepedi speaker in Polokwane, and I go to a shop, I can probably speak Sepedi to a shopkeeper. I can use Sepedi to transact. I can go to a post office and do the same thing,” says De Lanerolle.

“There are a lot of people in South Africa who do not read and write English easily. It’s a significant barrier, but is a solvable one. People, who design services and content, need to take account of that, especially when you have got these limits when you have reached the limit of your clientele.”

Internet users on the continent may be on the rise, but almost half the population lives below the poverty line. According to De Lanerolle’s research, in 2008, one in seven people in South Africa were online. In 2012, this grew to one in three. By 2016, there could be as many as two out of three, he says.

The research bears out that the younger you are, the more likely you are to use it. Almost 50% of those under 25 are internet users, while less than 20% older than 45 use the net. Businesses need to be cautious when it comes to developing apps.

“When people are launching the business they say let’s design an app for an IOS system. First, ask why do an app? If your target market is a low-end income user, they are most likely using a BlackBerry. Why use smartphones?”

“Research, from the US, shows that most users use only 10 apps. It’s quite hard to develop an app that is quite easy to use. More seriously, it’s harder to make an app absolutely necessary that will be in that top 10. Most apps will be used and then dropped in a very short time, like games,” he says.

For those who have dreams of becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg and designing a multimillion-dollar app in their garage in Africa, the road may belong and rocky. There is a shortage of developers in Africa, for a start.

“By far our biggest constraint is developers. I was speaking to a CEO of a fairly big company in Sandton; they alone have a hundred vacancies for developers. The problem is we don’t have enough, especially at an entrepreneur level. Because they have such shortages in Sandton, they are offering pretty good salaries. You have to be pretty brave and pretty confident to say ‘screw that I am going to do my own thing and hope I score.’”

Social media is the king of the internet. Seventy five percent of users have at least one account on Facebook, Twitter, Mxit or LinkedIn or other social platforms.

Dinesh Balliah, New and Social Media lecturer at Wits, has taught students to use the internet in journalism for four years. The growing generation of internet users are far less computer savvy than they are made out to be, she says.

“Students these days don’t even know how to burn a CD. I feel like the generation we have now, that deals in apps, don’t learn how to troubleshoot on a computer. Back [in 2000], if you stuffed up on a computer you had to fix it. Even a software error, you had to fix it. Now you just try something else, or reinstall. The way in which we learn about computers has completely changed.”

“I think social media has changed the game for everyone. What’s shifted drastically is initially when the internet came out it was very top down. Those who had power, money and influence were the people producing content. So you had very exclusive content producers. Then you shifted to Web 2.0, where internet users were producing internet content of their own. Now you have moved to a situation where it’s not very clear what production content is. Is a tweet content? Is a Facebook comment content? The individual matters now more than ever.”

The language of computers could be more important than learning Mandarin, she says.

“With me, my general rule with my kids is that they need to read and write properly first and then they can have access to a computer. If you look at people who became tech innovators, they played computer games. People have this aversion and get scared of games and computers, but we should be teaching our kids how to code through games,” says Balliah.

It may be for a privileged few, but it’s clear Africa is set to be changed even more by the growing, dynamic power of the internet.

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