Why The Cost Of Data In Africa Needs To Come Down

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Written by Tom Jackson
cost of data in Africa
The cost of data in most African countries is still far too high. Photo – Face2faceAfrica

The cost of data in most African countries is far too high, and must come down if the continent is to fulfill its potential.

Africa has the highest cost to connect of any region in the world. Across the continent, just 1GB of mobile data costs the average citizen nearly 18 per cent of their monthly income. The high cost of data acts as a major barrier to access; as a result, just 22 percent of Africans are online.

This has led to protests and campaigns in countries like South Africa, with the social media campaign #DataMustFall drawing attention to high data costs, claiming they punish the poor.

It is having little impact, however. The price of data in South Africa – US$7.60 per GB – has not changed over the past two years, according to Research ICT Africa. Though South Africa is the most expensive out of Africa’s leading economies, it is not alone in charging too much, with Kenya charging almost $5 per GB.

The problem is so significant that even Google set about trying to tackle it this month, releasing an app – Google Go – that reduces the amount of data needed to display search results by 40 per cent.

Onica Makwakwa, Africa regional coordinator at the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), says her organisation will consider internet to be affordable when the price of 1GB of data costs no more than two percent of monthly average income – its ‘one for two’ target.

Currently, just five African countries have met this target: Mauritius, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Sudan. It is imperative that more countries manage to lower the cost of connectivity.

“Half of the world today is still offline – nearly 950 million of those unconnected are in Africa. As more of our lives move into the online space, letting this digital divide grow risks deepening existing inequalities and undermining growth, particularly since most of those offline are women, the poor, and other already marginalised groups,” said Makwakwa.

“Connectivity brings opportunities to learn and earn, to access valuable services and to participate in democratic debate; enabling access for all has the power to underpin wider global development and inability to afford a basic connection should not be an obstacle to realising this potential.”

A4AI is not alone in calling for costs to fall. South African conglomerate Naspers said recently it was trying to persuade African telecoms firms to offer customers unlimited data to help boost the growth of internet television – like its ShowMax service.

The cost of data as a government concern

Unlimited data might be too much to ask, but there are a number of approaches that can be taken to drive down the price. A4AI’s main recommendation is for governments to work towards its ‘one for two’ affordability target, but there are other ways.

“Governments can also make better use of existing resources like Universal Service and Access Funds (USAFs), which are communal public funds intended to expand connectivity opportunities to the unconnected,” Makwakwa said.

A total of 37 African countries have these funds in place, but an estimated $408 million worth of funds that could be used to close this digital divide are sitting dormant.

“This amount alone is enough to connect six million women,” said Makwakwa.

“We’re seeing an increase in government-sponsored access schemes aimed at providing affordable access for the public. These sort of public access solutions are critical to enabling those that can’t afford a basic connection the opportunity to access and use the internet.”

An example of this is the city of Tshwane in South Africa, which has deployed a public Wi-Fi programme that provides a free daily allotment of 500MB of data to its citizens. The city government also plans to roll out 932 miles of broadband fibre across the city to deliver additional e-services.

“Botswana has implemented a similar scheme, using funds from the country’s USAF to provide access to more of its citizens through the deployment of public Wi-Fi hotspots. The hotspots provide users with 30 minutes of free internet access daily, as well as free and unlimited access to select government websites,” Makwakwa said.

“The government allows users to purchase additional data to use on these networks at a subsidised rate.”

More African governments must take note of such initiatives if the price of data in Africa is to fall, with benefits across the board. If they don’t, the social media campaigns are set to get larger and larger.

Tom Jackson is co-founder of Disrupt Africa, a news and research company focused on the African tech startup ecosystem.