Unconnectedness snarls Africa’s digital economic upturn

By Avit Ndayiziga

A mere 40% of Africans against 89% of Europeans have access to the internet. Insufficient and declining infrastructure coupled with gradually impoverishing African populations fuel the matter. Li Junhua, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, however, calls for collaboration between states, non-governmental organizations, and tech businesses to guarantee Africans equitable digital opportunities. 

Abiy Ahmed Ali, Prime Minister of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia

During the official opening ceremonies of the 17th annual meeting of the United Nations Internet Governance Forum (IGF22), held in Addis Ababa from November 28 to December 2, 2022, Abiy Ahmed Ali, Prime Minister of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia, acknowledged the crucial role of the internet. 

“Could you imagine what would have happened if COVID-19 had met us without access to the internet?” he asked. Fortunately, he added,  the internet enabled us to continue working despite the lockdown that prevented team members from reaching offices.

Unquestionably, the Ethiopian Premier continued, the internet has proven itself to be a transformative force in this modern digital world. Besides, the internet has also been instrumental in providing access to information, news, and resources to help people stay informed and connected during the pandemic. 

It has also enabled people to access remote services, such as online banking, healthcare, and government services. The pandemic has proved that the Internet is a tremendous business, educational, and communication tool. Abiy concluded his speech by underscoring the enormous significance of the internet during hard times. 

Li Junhua, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs

Li Junhua, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, backs him, pointing out that the Internet is a key component in accelerating the course toward Sustainable Development Goals. He, therefore, urged states, non-governmental organizations, and tech businesses to work hand in hand to provide Africans with equitable digital opportunities. 

On the other hand, he warned that 3 billion people are unconnected worldwide, shockingly, 60% of them are Africans. 

The number of unconnected people is even higher in the least developed countries (including Burundi) with only 21% having access to the internet whereas 89% of Europeans enjoy safe and affordable internet. 

Burundi is facing a worse scenario than that. According to ISTEEBU’s 2019 statistics, the country homes approximately 12,440,164 people

Nevertheless, only 2,714,775 out of 7,518,894 individuals who possess mobile phones have access to mobile internet; supplements from those utilizing fixed internet access totaled 2,718,740.

“By the end of 2022, only 22.57% of Burundians had access to the internet,” reported the East African country’s Agence de Régulation et de Contrôle des Télécommunications (ARCT-BURUNDI), in its quarterly report published on 9th February 2023. 

Francis Olivier Cubahiro, chairman of the internet society of Burundi (ISOC Burundi), also managing Information Technologies facilities in the Ministry of Communication, information technologies and Media, admits that having low internet use creates a huge loss for the government and internet consumers themselves. 

Francis Olivier Cubahiro, chairman of the internet society of Burundi (ISOC Burundi), also managing Information Technologies facilities in the Ministry of Communication, information technologies and Media,

“For instance, in the third quarter of 2022, with only 2,718,740 Internet users (which is 22.57%), the government was still able to earn BIF 6,956,084,587 of revenue from it. If Internet users increased to at least 50% of the population, this amount would surge to BIF 15,410,023,453.699,” noted the chairman. 

Further, Cubahiro underscored the plight of professionals pushing in the sector of content creation with an immediate audience online. “Besides the government, even internet users are hampered by the low internet usage rate. For instance, there are a few internet content creators in Burundi. Because there are so few viewers, even those who engage in it do not make enough money”

Internet services revenue amounted to BIF 30,531,870,251 over the previous five quarters (from the third quarter of 2021 to the third quarter of 2022). Thus, the industry of information technology ranks first in taxes collection for the Burundian government. 

The ISOC Burundi chairman points out that the purchasing power of Burundians is lower than the price tag of internet enablers devices. However, He emphasizes that Article 106 of the 2022/2023 State budget stipulating 18% megabits taxation bought on a price above BIF 1,000 has amplified a low number of internet users by excluding low-income earners. 

To reverse the situation, Cubahiro calls for a pay-as-you-go strategy allowing a large number of Burundians to access the internet enablers such as smartphones, computers, and other internet-accessible devices. He commends the government’s drive to bring out optical fiber coverage within the whole nation. However, the government, he pleads,  should reconsider their taxation rates regarding the internet. 

In addition, he hopes that the Project d’Appui aux Fondations de l’Économie Numérique (PAFEN), worth USD 61 million, will be funded by the World Bank. The project aims to increase access to high-speed internet, particularly for underserved populations, and improve the ability of the government to deliver public services digitally. 

The Minister of Communication, Information Technologies, and Media, Léocadie Ndacayisaba presented it to members of the parliament who even ratified it on September 1, 2022. 

“The latter project will close the digital gap and provide internet access to Burundian rural communities, women, girls, and vulnerable populations like the disabled, indigenous peoples, and others affected by climate change,” she advanced. 

Additionally, the minister promised, the plan is to establish a digitally engaged government that can support horizontal digital enablers that will increase the ability to provide digital public services. 

Antonio Pedro, acting Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, admits that vulnerability is a major issue on the African continent, with 55 million people gradually becoming poorer due to the ongoing crises leading millions of Africans to offline dwellings along with insufficient and declining infrastructure fueling the matter. 

Antonio Pedro, acting Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa

However, the UN official remains optimistic that greater things are taking place on the African continent to combat the digital divide.

He recalled that the recent meeting of African heads of state tackling African industrialization in Ndjema, Niger, agreed that the digital economy must lead to African industrialization. For instance, Rwanda’s Irembo and Kenya’s HudumaKenya and eCitizen, are initiatives set up by governments with the aim of integrating various public services for convenient, fast, and efficient digital access. 

Anriette Esterhuysen, Chairperson of the Internet Governance Forum’s Multi-Stakeholder Advisory Group, suggests that rather than regulating the internet, guidelines, and behavior should be developed to regulate and lead internet users. She defines connectivity as a human rights and-centric approach that combines access (affordable connectivity and devices). 

Anriette Esterhuysen in the middle, Chairperson of the Internet Governance Forum’s Multi-Stakeholder Advisory Group

This year’s IGF22 main theme “Connecting All people and safeguarding Human Rights”, has as its first principle to “Connect all people to the Internet, including all schools.” This recognizes that connectivity and its access have become prerequisites for ensuring livelihoods, and safety. Also, education for all around the world – including schools – provides access, makes informational resources available to all students, and builds digital literacy from the earliest stages of life. 

2.7 billion people, unfortunately, remain internet-off today, with those in the least developed countries and rural communities being the most disadvantaged. 

Suggested solutions involve creating pilot projects and finding financial methods to make smartphones and other electronics more affordable. Promoting promotion rather than a monopoly for small and medium Internet service providers to compete would make the tech industry safer and more promising. 

Last, incorporating digital literacy and skill development into educational curricula is essential for training all students. This would enhance the international digital learning community, and ultimately address issues caused by unconnectedness in developing countries like those in Africa. 

This article was funded by the United Nations Internet Governance Forum (IGF22)

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