Data cost is a major obstacle to Africans moving online

Nearly three-quarters (75%) of African youth view universal Wi-Fi a human rights, but high data costs from South Africa and Ghana mean that only one-in-eight can afford to be online at all times, report Kent Mensah and Kim Harrisberg for Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Alongside the food, clothing and nappies gifted to a shelter for South African flood victims, one donation proved especially popular – a Wi-Fi router.

The router allowed the students to finish assignments, helped the unemployed find jobs and meant seamstresses could download dress patterns – tasks that had been tricky for many of them previously due to South Africa’s high internet costs.

“Accessing internet is a human right, but it is one we couldn’t afford before,” said Nozipho Sithole, a former care home worker who quit her job to help fellow victims of the devastating floods that hit KwaZulu-Natal province in April.

South Africans pay upto 85 rand ($5.29) per gigabyte of data. This cost is equivalent to almost four hours work for those who earn the minimum wage.

That compares with about $1.53 per gigabyte in North Africa and $2.47 in Western Europe, according to new research by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation charity that highlights, among other topics, sub-Saharan Africa’s sky-high data costs.

The region has the world’s most expensive mobile data prices, according to the Worldwide Mobile Data Pricing 2021 report. “

Expensive internet services widen the so-called “digital divide” between the world’s tech and internet haves and have-nots, according to the United Nations, which says about half the global population falls into the latter group.

According to Ivor Ichikowitz (chairman of the Ichikowitz Family Foundation), young Africans are increasingly recognizing internet access as a fundamental human right. The high cost of data could also become a pressing issue.

A survey was conducted by the charity. Interviews were taken with over 4,500 18-24-year-olds from across the continent. The results showed that 71% viewed universal Wi-Fi to be a fundamental human rights, while only 8 percent could afford coverage at all times.

“If we look through the survey, there are probably four or five things that would bring young Africans out into the streets – and this is one of the top ones,” said Ichikowitz.

“It’s bizarre to think of this, but there’s actually a security risk on the continent, a huge security risk, if this is not addressed,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a video call.

Data and smartphones

Digital innovations are increasing in popularity across Africa, whether they be from grassroots internet providers or homegrown social networks. But tech entrepreneurs fear that data costs could hold them back.

“There are a lot of things we can do here in Africa looking at the penetration of smartphones on the continent, but because of data costs we’re limited,” said Divine Puplampu, a Ghanaian software developer.

Smartphones are widely used on Africa, with 64% of Sub-Saharan Africans having one by late 2021. This figure is expected to rise to 75% by 2025 according to GSMA (an umbrella organization representing mobile operators worldwide).

Due to the high price and limited availability of internet access, not everyone with a smartphone can be online.

Puplampu estimated that he spent approximately 800 Ghanaian Cedi ($100), on data per month and that the cost had increased sharply in recent years.

“That alone is somebody’s salary and higher than the wage of a national service personnel,” Puplampu said.

A combination of poor infrastructure and the control that telecommunication operators have over consumer rates are among the leading causes of Africa’s high data costs, said Ichikowitz.

“So it’s not necessarily in the hands of government unless they change legislation … to compel the telcos to make the investment required to get cost-effective high-speed data into as many hands as possible” he said.

Puplampu suggested policymakers needed to make it worthwhile for the telecommunications companies to cut their prices – for example, by reducing permit fees and allowing them to save money by using government-funded infrastructure.

“It will go a long way to improve on internet penetration in the country,” he said, noting that Ghanaians were pushing back against a recent e-levyIssued by the government to increase revenue from mobile money transactions

Remote working

Making internet more affordable would be a huge boon for African economies, opening up one of the world’s biggest pools of available labour, said Ichikowitz.

“There’s no reason why young Africans can’t be working remotely the same way as young Americans, Brazilians and Europeans are,” he said.

In Kenya, which is dubbed “Silicon Savannah” for its hefty tech sector, 1GB of data is relatively cheaper – costing about 99 Kenyan shillings ($0.85).

But for young Kenyans hoping to break out of poverty into the country’s flourishing tech industry, it is still more than they can afford on top of other essential costs.

Brighton, a 17-year-old student from an informal settlement called Kawangware in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, finished secondary school in December and now wants to learn coding and become a software developer.

His data is often out of date by the time that he’s finished browsing a few websites to learn more about coding.

“The data is too expensive,” said Brighton, who has taken up a 300-shilling per month job on a construction site while he plans his next step.

He isn’t giving up on the possibility of a career in tech innovation, despite these obstacles. “Everyone says that tech is the best sector to be in for young people,” said Brighton, asking not to give his full name.

“I think I’m good with computers and see a future for myself in technology.”

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