Editorial: Why Low Internet Penetration Won’t Slow Africa’s Device Boom

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Written by Makula Dunbar

While broadband connection remains an issue in Africa, the use of mobile phones and internet use on handsets has ceased to slow. Internet users in Africa account for only seven percent of global internet surfers, still through mobile phones, Africans are finding ways to access the web — despite only 54 percent of mobile users in the Middle East and Africa having smartphones with internet capabilities.

This means mobile internet penetration in Africa isn’t quite a revolution, just a sign of substantial progress considering total internet penetration of 16 percent — compared to a global 36 percent.

Overall, the continent of Africa ranks as the world’s second largest mobile phone market. However, because connectivity is moving at a snail’s pace, tech companies and manufacturers in Africa are looking to the emergence of other devices which impact growth in non-tech sectors.

Education

eReader devices in Africa are unique when paralleled to internet penetration, because they don’t require a constant connection. Pre-loaded and downloaded literature is finding it’s way into classrooms and homes across Africa, lowering illiteracy rates. When internet access is available in classrooms or via mobile phones at home, students and families can load more books to be read anytime. U.S.-based non-profit Worldreader released a report over-viewing its eReader program in Ghana. Findings revealed that in comparison to a controlled group of students who didn’t use the eReader devices, students who did, improved reading levels by twice the rate.

A persistent problem, which the company is currently working through, is the durability of the devices. Across the board — in the U.S. as well — cracked screens and software issues are common. Prepping repair teams and student trainings on eReader care and handling are in process.

Agriculture & SMS

Agriculture, especially in rural areas has benefited from technology boosts — however where internet access isn’t available, there are SMS services which help farmers save money while improving business practices and farming techniques.

Aside from web services, apps like M-KilimoM-Farm, I-Cow, Esoko and a host of others send messages informing farmers in countries including Tanzania, Ghana, Mozambique, Malawi and Kenya with crop price, supply, technique and equipment use information.

While web-based searches are faster and sometimes more effective, detailed reports via SMS have effectively enabled farmers to quickly adjust to market fluctuation and pricing shifts. According to O Africa, I-Cow alone has helped farmers increase their incomes by 42 percent while other farmers have hiked milk production by more than 50 percent.

Local Manufacturing on the Rise

As handy as big brand mobile phones are, more designers and manufacturers in Africa are looking to start producing mobile phones, laptops and tablets within the continent. Tech Central reported that Seemahale Telecoms and CZ Electronics — both based in South Africa — are looking to manufacture devices in the country.

Through this business move, the companies are looking to create jobs and cut down on dependency of foreign manufacturers, which influence price hikes of tech products.

According to Wired UK, DRC-based TMK Tech, headed by Verone Mankou, is planning a factory opening in the second quarter of this year.

Last November Mankou told Wired UK:

“If in my country you want to buy a phone, we don’t have an Apple store and a Microsoft store. You go to the phone dealer and he can’t suggest a phone for you. The first question he will ask is ‘how much do you have?'”

Producing feature phones, tablets and smartphones, Mankou is also planning to haul in marketing, sales and tech professionals to carry out and grow the task of 1) producing more devices in Africa 2) encouraging stabilized and more internet connections in Africa.

“Samsung is huge in the world, and Apple too, but I will be huge in Africa. It’s my fight, it’s on my mind and I know that it is time for Africa,” he said.

Low internet use or not, the African mobile market remains the fastest growing. However, through tech entrepreneurship, alternate tech devices — and SMS services which provide information without internet — mobile consumers are edging toward yet another tech breakthrough.