Burundi: Limited internet access hinders youth employment

By Avit Ndayiziga

With each passing day, the relentless progress of technology continues to shape our present and future possibilities. Due to this, traditional jobs are shrinking as the world is gradually migrating to digital entrepreneurship. Meanwhile, the youth in Burundi are struggling to cope with the advancements, due to slow or no access to reliable internet. 

Across the country, Burundi’s digital generation stretches back and forth to find its pace. However, their journeys have been limited to social media platforms. 

According to the recent data published by Agence de Régulation et de Contrôle des Télécommunications du Burundi (ARCT) in October 2023, out of eight million mobile phone users in Burundi, only 2.9 million people have access to the internet. This figure accounts for just 24.3 percent of the country’s population, which is 12 million.

This has, so far, jeopardized the lives of the youth in Burundi, who make up over 60 percent of the country’s population. These young individuals are striving to escape from the unemployment trap chain by venturing into digital projects such as online trading, delivery services, vlogging, blogging, and other internet-dependent services. 

However, slow or no access to reliable internet prevents them from embarking on the field. The few that try mainly in Bujumbura, the economic city, complain about the internet sluggishness. 

Internet sluggishness snarls youth employment

Franck Faith, a web designer at Xdash Media, a collective of young developers and designers based in Bujumbura, the economic city of Burundi, shares his frustration with the slow internet speeds, particularly the sluggish uploading speed as it hinders him from meeting the expectations of his clients.

Franck Faith, a web designer at Xdash Media, a collective of young developers and designers based in Bujumbura

“When designing websites, I have to work late at night because that is when I at least have a short window of stable internet connection for uploading. However, not all can stand till late at night”,  Lamented Faith.

Edisson Ndayahoze, a content creator and journalist, echoes Faith’s frustration. “Here in Burundi, internet providers such as Lumitel and Econet Wireless are complicating our lives. Let’s take this example,” he explains. “I create and edit a short video of between 10 and 15 minutes, but when I try to upload it to my social media platforms, it takes an entire day. This does not only impact my reputation, but it also affects my followers, whom I consider as customers. They lose interest in my content and I gain little at the end of the day.”Complained Edisson.

Edisson Ndayahoze, a content creator and journalist

Over the past few years, the government has been overcharging the internet whenever a fiscal year starts. However, the state of speed has never changed. According to the content creator and journalist, it is a paradox.

“The Government should monitor internet speed for small-scale digital entrepreneurs,” said Edisson Ndayahoze. He added that they are collecting internet fees for free without providing stable and reliable internet.  

Backing him, Cedric Irakoze, a professional translator and interpreter who has been working for Translator Without Borders, meanwhile, laments how he couldn’t secure a lucrative remote job due to slow internet download and upload speeds. 

“I have changed almost all internet providers and subscribed to their best internet packages but in vain. I do not know what is happening with our internet providers,” lamented Irakoze. 

“In my job as a translator, I consider the internet a fundamental necessity, just like water and food. Without a reliable and stable internet connection, I am unable to work, and without work, I cannot survive”. 

I have lost highly profitable remote jobs because it was requested to provide proof of an internet speed ranging from 10 megabits per second (MbS) to 20 MbS, which is building castles in Burundi, concluded Cedric.

Not only do young people complain about sluggish internet, but even well-known activists complain.

Faustin Ndikumana, the head of Parole et Action pour le Réveil des Consciences et l’Evolution des Mentalités (Parcem Burundi), a Burundian civil society organization committed to promoting good governance, combating corruption, safeguarding human rights, and advancing economic development, says that it will be tough for Burundi to achieve its 2040 and 2060 visions with such internet speed.

“During webinars, our internet connection is often unstable. A scenario that differs from participants from other countries, who have stable connections. These issues stem from the burden of high taxes and bribery demands imposed by authorities to grant licenses to internet providers. Unless there is proper governance in the sector, meaningful change will remain elusive.” warned Faustin.

Rural communities suffer the most

In addition to the complaints from internet consumers in Bujumbura, the economic city of Burundi, the situation is even worse for rural youth in terms of internet accessibility and speed. Many of them do not own smartphones. Those who do, however, still travel in search of internet connectivity signals.

Gerardine Nibishimirwe, a student at the Institut Universitaire des Lacs de Kirundo, the northern province of Burundi, 129 miles from Bujumbura says that she has to hike several kilometers to access the internet.

Gerardine Nibishimirwe, a student at the Institut Universitaire des Lacs de Kirundo

“When we are given research assignments that require an internet connection, it is difficult for us to access the Internet at the University or the Tele Center. Instead, I [walk] trek several kilometers to access the internet. I have to go to the center of town where our phones start picking up the internet signal. The internet is prolonged, making it impossible to use it as desired. when I am home, I am unable to conduct any research assignment that requires the Internet. I even use this small cell phone. I indeed miss a lot due to the lack of the internet signal.” Gerardine emphasizes.

Eliezel Nkengurukiyimana, another student facing similar circumstances, moans that young individuals are unable to fulfill the president’s desire to create employment for themselves due to the lack of reliable and consistent internet access.

Eliezel Nkengurukiyimana a student at the Institut Universitaire des Lacs de Kirundo

“As a student and aspiring graduate, I am aware that the internet is crucial in acquiring knowledge on establishing and managing innovative business ventures, which can ultimately generate job opportunities for both myself and fellow young individuals. However, without access to the internet for conducting research, it becomes increasingly challenging to meet our president’s expectations,” Eliezel said.

Nsabimana Jean Pierre, the administrator in charge of finances at the Institut Universitaire des Lacs de Kirundo, acknowledges that the internet service at the university is currently unstable and unreliable. However, he strongly encourages students to utilize the Tele Center established by the government to ensure connectivity for all.

Nsabimana Jean Pierre, the administrator in charge of finances at the Institut Universitaire des Lacs de Kirundo

“It is not uncommon for us to experience a loss of internet signal on our phones, and even the Wi-Fi provided to students here can sometimes malfunction. However, we have partnered with the government-established Tele Center to ensure that everyone has access to reliable connectivity. The Tele Center offers high-speed internet, so we strongly encourage students to visit and present their student cards to conduct their research. It’s not just limited to students, even lecturers are welcome to use the facility if they wish to enhance their presentations,” Pierre indicated.

During the Internet Governance Forum (IGF22) held at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa in December 2022, Li Junhua, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, pointed out that Internet access is a key component in accelerating the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

However, he warned that over three billion people are not connected to the internet worldwide, and shockingly, 60 percent of them are Africans.

The number of unconnected people is even higher in the least developed countries, including Burundi, where only 24.3 percent have access to the internet 89 percent of Europeans enjoy a safe and affordable Internet.

Paradoxically, despite the relatively small number of internet users, the government of Burundi has managed to generate significant revenue from this sector. This is primarily due to Article 106 of the 2022/2023 State budget, which imposes an 18% tax on megabits purchased at a price exceeding BIF 1,000 which is the equivalent of USD 0.35.

The government has collected a staggering BIF 35 Billion from internet taxes in the last six months alone. Thus, the Internet has become the most profitable source of revenue for the government.

In light of this, Francis Olivier Cubahiro, chairman of the Internet Society of Burundi (ISOC Burundi), also the manager of Information Technologies facilities in the Ministry of Communication, Information Technologies and Media admits that having a small number of Internet users creates a huge loss for both the government and internet consumers.

“The government would gain a lot through internet-related taxes. But as for now,  we have a few internet content creators in Burundi because there are a  few viewers of online content, and even those who engage in it do not make enough money,” says the ISOC Burundi chairman. 

Cubahiro points out that the purchasing power of Burundians is lower than the price tag of internet access devices such as routers, mobile phones, computers, etc. However, he emphasizes that Article 106 of the 2022/2023 State budget which stipulates 18% megabits taxation bought on a price above BIF 1,000 has amplified a low number of internet users as it excludes low-income earners, especially young graduates and other jobless people.

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 fiber-optic coverage across the country. However, the government, he pleads, should reconsider taxation rates on the Internet.

In the framework of reversing the situation of unconnectedness in Burundi, during the opening ceremonies of the 28th Annual Assemblies of the East African Communications Organization (EACO) and the 25th Congress of this organization, held in Bujumbura from 26-30 June 2023, the Minister of Communication, Information Technologies, and Media, Léocadie Ndacayisaba admitted that the lack of adequate infrastructure and expensive internet costs remain challenges for young people, low-income earners, and rural communities.

“Compared to the East and Central Africa region, our internet prices are lower, but young people and rural communities find them expensive. It hinders them from grabbing online opportunities that would help in finding jobs for themselves and then reduce the unemployment rate.” said the Minister.

Léocadie Ndacayisaba the Minister of Communication, Information Technologies, and Media in Burundi.

However, Ndacayisaba indicated that the government of Burundi and its partners are implementing a Project d’Appui aux Fondations de l’Économie Numérique (PAFEN), worth USD 61 million and funded by the World Bank. This initiative aims to increase access to high-speed internet that goes up to 2MBps, particularly for underserved populations, and improve the ability of the government to deliver public services digitally.

“The government of Burundi is implementing projects aimed to bridge the digital divide. These projects will grant high-speed internet access to rural communities. These include women, girls, and other vulnerable groups with the lowest internet access rate. Internet’s expensive costs prevent them from accessing it. However, we are trying our best to lower its prices. We are therefore inviting foreign investors to come and invest in Burundi’s internet sector. With foreign investors, we will access cheap internet access. The Internet providers will purchase it cheaply and sell it at affordable prices. Therefore, each individual will be able to afford it and then use it easily.”Ndacayisaba indicated.

Furthermore, the minister pledged to develop a comprehensive strategy for creating a digitally empowered government capable of facilitating horizontal digital initiatives to enhance the delivery of digital public services such as passports and other various certificates and official documents that the government issues.

On the other hand, Pery Saxe Gateka, a young entrepreneur deeply dissatisfied with the internet services currently available, has opted to develop an internet-based sim card that will offer speeds ranging between 30Mbs and 50Mbs.

“Like many Burundians, I am deeply disappointed with the substandard internet speed currently provided, which only ranges from 0 to 1MBs. However, I am determined to address this issue through my Gasape Internet GIGA initiative. My goal is to provide the younger generation with reliable and fast internet access, enabling them to integrate into the rapidly advancing digital world fully.” Gateka shared his thoughts when presenting the progress made by his initiative thus far on July 24, 2023.

However, he emphasized the need for patience due to the test results indicating lower internet speeds in certain provinces, the current internet cost that is beyond the reach of most Burundians, and the necessity to comply with regulations.

“If I were to introduce this internet service immediately, it would be costly for some individuals. Currently, the most affordable monthly bundles cost 68.23 USD which is equivalent to BIF 193,612. I am then exerting maximum effort to reduce this price to BIF1200 per month, which may seem unimaginable to many people,” Gateka concluded.

Besides all of the efforts to connect the unconnected remote areas and vulnerable communities including the youth and women, the government of Burundi, along with its development partners including China, UNDP, and the World Bank, is taking proactive measures to address youth unemployment and promote economic growth. One such initiative is the Programme d’Autonomisation Économique et d’Emploi des Jeunes (PAEEJ-Burundi), which translates to the Economic Empowerment and Youth Employment Program. PAEEJ is dedicated to ensuring universal access to food and financial resources. It achieves this objective by providing funding and mentorship to innovative youth-led business initiatives.

Additionally, the government has established the Investment Bank for Youth (BIJE-BURUNDI), which provides capital in the form of loans with affordable interest rates to youth-led companies. These initiatives are part of a larger effort to empower young people and create opportunities for them in the workforce.

Despite all these governmental initiatives to fight against unemployment among the youth, a positive result is yet to be achieved. According to the Report of the Internal Survey on the Living Conditions of Households in Burundi, urban areas face a higher unemployment rate than rural areas. The overall unemployment rate stands at 17.2 percent, with a greater impact on educated individuals. Specifically, those with secondary education experience an unemployment rate of 10.3 percent, while those with higher education face a rate of 18.2 percent.

Burundi’s internet market is serviced by nine Internet Service Providers, including CBINET, SPIDERNET, USAN, LAMIWILESS, NT GLOBAL, BBS, ECONET LEO, VIETTEL, and ONATEL.

Among them, six operators provide fixed internet: CBINET, SPIDERNET, USAN, LAMIWILESS, NT GLOBAL, and BBS, and three operators, VIETTEL, ECONET LEO, and ONATEL operate both fixed and mobile Internet.At the Burundian border, IP capacity totaled 23 994 Mbit per second as of September 31, 2023.

This work was produced as a result of a grant provided by the Africa-China Reporting Project at the Wits Centre for Journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. The opinions held are of the author(s).

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