Africa 2.0: Inside a continent’s communications revolution provides an important history of how two technologies – mobile calling and internet – were made available to millions of sub-Saharan Africans and the impact they have had on their lives. The book deals with the political challenges of liberalisation and privatisation that needed to be in place to get these technologies built. It analyses how the mobile phone fundamentally changed communications in sub-Saharan Africa and the ways Africans have made these technologies part of their lives. It examines critically the technologies’ impact on development practices and the key role development actors played in accelerating things like regulatory reform, fibre roll-out and mobile money. The book considers how corruption in the industry is a prism through which patronage relationships in government can be understood. The arrival of a start-up ecosystem has the potential to break these relationships and offer a new wave of investment opportunities. The author seeks to go beyond the hype to make a provisional assessment of the kinds of changes that have happened over three decades. It examines how and why these technologies became transformative and seem to have opened out a very different future for sub-Saharan Africa.
Bandwidth is the petrol of the digital economy, and before the international cables were built it was supplied to sub-Saharan Africa largely through satellite services: quality was often poor and the costs were high. Sub-Saharan Africa had the lowest capacity in the world for international internet bandwidth. Without effective internet, there were few incentives to develop local African content. This chapter looks at how sub-Saharan Africa got connected to the internet, the birth of independent African internet service providers and their fight to open up competitive international access. The first fruits of that struggle for users were cyber-cafes, which were new spaces to access virtual worlds. The last part of the chapter describes how the monopoly of international bandwidth supply – which kept internet prices high – was broken by a succession of new cables and fibre networks with innovative governance and finance structures. It was a classic ‘chicken and egg’ situation. No market for internet meant no finance for data networks. Without the latter, there would never be a larger market for internet. In these early years, the number of sub-Saharan African internet users was tiny. It had grown only slowly from 0.2 million in 1998 to 3.2 million in 2002. This chapter explores how providing bandwidth at an affordable price in sub-Saharan Africa was far more complicated than building mobile voice networks.
Before internet use could reach more sub-Saharan Africans, three factors had to align: lower mobile internet prices and faster speeds; cheaper mobile phones with better functionality; and attractive and widespread content apps on these improved phones to breed internet use. The opening part of the chapter looks at this process from two very different perspectives: one, that of a mobile phone fanboy who became an influencer; the other, that of an African mobile executive who grappled with some of the first mobile internet roll-outs. From their different perspectives, they illustrate both the early potential for mobile internet and the barriers it had to overcome. The chapter then details: the five-year road to cheaper mobile internet prices; how the issue of cheaper smartphones was, and continues to be tackled; and the arrival of Google and Facebook and how they contributed to the increase in African internet users.
Making sense of what has happened over thirty-five years
This book has argued that the rate of changing human behaviours is far slower than the pace of the introduction of new technologies. The ‘changing of the guard’ in terms of sub-Saharan Africa’s ‘digital natives coming to power’ will take a decade or more to materialise. What has transpired up to now might best be described as the ‘end of the beginning.’ The final chapter seeks to provide some provisional conclusions that establish what has been achieved. But it also raises questions about how quickly sub-Saharan Africa’s digital future can continue to transform the assumptions about what Africans can do that will lead to the opening out of a very different future for the continent. It describes: the liberalisation success story, the finance that drove change, the wider access to news and entertainment and the continuing digital divide and concludes by focusing on four key behaviours – aspiration, individuality, sexual norms and trust – affected by the technologies dealt with in this book.
The Introduction provides a framework for understanding technology change, and the ways in which it has been used by the author. It looks at how different players in the development field have sought to understand: how these changes work; some key terms like the digital divide; and the drawbacks of some of these approaches. It outlines the author’s approach to writing the book, drawing on twenty years of primary research and making extensive use of interviews, many of which were carried out specifically for the book. The book’s methodology is primarily historical, but draws upon materials from fields as diverse as economics, business studies, development studies, history, anthropology, ethnography, sociology, psychology, politics and cultural studies. On this basis, it provides a first draft of the history of thirty-five years of technology use in Africa, commencing from 1986.
From transferring cash by SMS to a digital payments ecosystem (2000–20)
This chapter describes how sub-Saharan Africans used airtime transfer to send cash to each other; the way in which this was noticed and used to create early, unsuccessful mobile money services; how the United Kingdom government’s the Department for International Development helped to finance M-Pesa; the unsuccessful early roll-outs of mobile money in West Africa and why they failed; and the hurdles mobile money start-up Paga faced when launching in Nigeria. Mobile money has enabled national, regional and international transactions as well developing a wide range of payment services (for example, loans, insurance and social payments). All of these have come together to create a developing payment ecosystem. The chapter concludes by looking at the future of mobile money and how industry ‘collision’ – where, for example, a mobile operator becomes a bank or a social media platform adds a payment facility – will play a part.
This chapter looks at the opening up of communications markets in sub-Saharan Africa to privately owned companies (known as liberalisation), and the privatisation of state-owned monopoly telecommunications companies, that brought large-scale investment into Africa to create mobile voice networks. This was both a political and a legal challenge. The chapter describes how market liberalisation and privatisation pitted the inefficient state telecoms behemoths against new mobile market challengers, with the latter introducing innovations like pre-paid calling. It describes how liberalisation in South Africa at the end of the apartheid era drew in international investment, and the licensing process in Nigeria that overcame corrupt practices. It concludes by looking at the uneven pace of liberalisation and privatisation up to 2004. The contrast between the struggles to set up a mobile voice operation in Zaire (described in the Prologue) and Zimbabwe illustrate the ‘old’ and ‘new’ ways of doing business in Africa. Whereas Telecel’s Miko Rwayitare and his partner relied on a relationship with a key politician, Masiywa’s struggle, and those of many others, was about due process and rules.
This opening section looks at Africa’s first mobile phone operation in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo). In 1986 the company launching the service – Telecel – was far ahead of its time. The business was very much cast in the ‘old Africa’ mould, it relied on political patronage and became heavily dependent on politicians’ goodwill to keep operating. Its business model was one of selling scarcity expensively to elite customers. The section outlines the considerable difficulties that businesses operated under before telecommunications was more formally regulated.
This chapter looks at how communications became the ‘magic dust’ for development; the assumptions underpinning what its transformative effects might be; the debate over its appropriateness and cost-effectiveness; the shift from information communication technology for development (ICT4D) to mobile for development (M4D); the transition to a wider palette of technologies; and the long challenges to ICT4D in Africa: education and agriculture. The chapter opens with a description of how one of the world’s largest refugee camps (Dadaab) was connected to mobile voice and internet communications, and some of the changes it brought about, some transformative and others within the boundaries of existing cultures. The opening snapshot illustrates two themes of the chapter. Firstly, how development agencies’ operating costs and efficiencies can often be improved by using the same technologies used elsewhere, not least by connecting camps to fibre networks and delivering aid money directly to refugees by mobile money. Secondly, how development agencies use technologies and their use, or lack of use, by ‘beneficiaries’.
Getting beyond the hype to address deep market challenges (1995–2020)
This chapter provides a history of the early wave of start-ups and the early ecosystem; a critical description of the ‘start-up ecosystem’ for tech-enabled businesses; the different types of start-ups and the investment they have brought into the African continent and the challenges facing home-grown start-ups. It also describes the deep challenges faced by international start-ups coming into the continent, using the examples of e-commerce and ride hailing. The opening section looks at how two entrepreneurs – one Kenyan and the other Nigerian – came together to create an ambitious, pan-continental payments company. It provides an unflinching look at the kind of obstacles experienced by sub-Saharan African entrepreneurs and how they have overcome many of them. It looks at how they changed what their company did as they reacted to market changes and how they sought to find a profitable niche.