A growing internet user demographic in Africa that could see it have 360 million smartphones over the next decade has attracted global tech giants Google and Facebook to the continent of nearly 1 billion people.
Africa, with a internet penetration rate of just 16 percent, has be termed as the last frontier for these tech players, who have resorted to using “drug pusher” tactics to get African users on board, Africa Internet access specialist Mike Jensen says.
Google and Facebook are offering freebies aimed at hooking African users and lock then in. Some of these freebies include deals with local service providers such as Vodacom, MTN, Bharti Airtel and Safaricom to offer users free, or ‘zero-rated’ access to their sites and services.
“It’s like a drug pusher giving you a small amount and saying: ‘If you want more, you have to come and buy it’,” Jensen told Reuters.
While such freebies give global internet companies a big advertising space, it leaves no room for innovation and kills any opportunities for local tech entrepreneurs, leaving the African online market dominated by big foreign companies.
“Where will the African Mark Zuckerberg come from when they have no chance to compete?” Niels ten Oever, head of digital at rights group Article 19, told Reuters.
But even with such a tilted playing field, experts said that these freebies could be what many African countries with low internet penetrations need to improve internet access to the populace, something that could improve education, grow businesses and help in alleviating poverty.
According to WebIndex, high speed broadband costs up to 100 percent of average per capita income in Africa, compared to less than 1 percent in developed countries,.
“I’m not a fan of ‘zero-rated’ services but there is an argument to say: ‘something is better than nothing’,” Stephen Song, an Internet researcher for the Network Startup Resource Center, told Reuters.