Ahead of the Activate Johannesburg Summit 2014, Bitange Ndemo, honorary chair, Alliance for Affordable Internet, spoke to us about the impact of the internet on Africa in its first 25 years and what future challenges and opportunities lie ahead for the web.
Tell us about your background, and work today?
Besides being the honorary chair of the Alliance for Affordable Internet, I teach entrepreneurship and research methods at the University of Nairobi. In the last 10 years, I was the permanent secretary, ministry of information and communications, Kenya. In my first few years in the civil service, I pushed for the supply-side of the internet when the entire eastern Africa was not connected to the rest of the world through fibre optics. Today, I am actively involved in the demand-side of the internet, mostly advocating for local content development.
How much impact has the internet had on Africa in its first 25 years?
The internet has changed Africa. It has deepened financial services in the continent beyond the imaginations of many people globally. The internet is greatly contributing to economic growth in Africa and creating new jobs that had never existed. Africa is talking its way into productivity with services now closer to citizens. Farmers are getting value out of their produce as they receive pricing information on their mobile phones. Governments in Africa are also gearing up to use the mobile platform to offer government services.
The mobile internet is delivering many more services to the people than was envisaged just a few years ago. Young people are leveraging broadband to innovate. Less than 10 years ago, you would not have found the words “Africa” and “innovation” in the same sentence, but now new applications have changed this and Africa is truly making major contributions globally.
The recent McKinsey report, Lions go Digital: The Internet’s Transformative Potential in Africa estimates that in the next 10 years, the internet will contribute as much as $300bn in GDP and a similar amount in productivity gains. E-commerce will grow from virtually nothing today to more than $75bn. The internet’s impact has already been felt and will continue to be felt. It is one innovation that has touched the life of every human being.
What do you see the big challenges and opportunities for African internet being in the next 25, both internally and globally?
The big challenge in the next 25 years is to connect more than 7bn people on earth to the internet. Much of the connectivity is concentrated in urban areas. Most rural places still do not have access to the internet. Secondly, affordability is a major issue considering the fact that many people still live on less than two dollars a day.
The internet is being targeted increasingly by governments that want to control access to the web. This will greatly impact the full potential of the internet if nations fail to create an enabling environment that stimulates growth of its use. Cybersecurity will continue to be a challenge and may become a major roadblock to greater use of the internet. If it is not secure, people will not trust greater penetration of the web.
How is technology changing the spread of information? What impact does this have on governments and activism?
Technology has changed the way that information is created and dispersed. Social media has not only challenged media houses but has come with new ways of spreading information. New applications around visualisation have made it simpler to present information in a way that many people can understand.
Governments are becoming more responsive to their citizens given the fact that most governments are now on social media. Governance is slowly but surely being changed. Activists are also leveraging social media to push their agenda. Some of the trending issues like #someonetellkenya, raise serious matter that some years back required great mobilisation to get the point across to government.
You pushed for digitised data within government but met strong resistance. Why – and did you manage to overcome these problems? Is this good for Kenya?
Our digitisation programme succeeded to some extent. Several infrastructural issues needed to be dealt with. We needed to change several pieces of information such as the Official Secrets Act which would not allow storage in more secure facilities that may not be available locally. We could not leverage cloud computing since some of the terminologies were not defined within the law. Nevertheless, we pushed on with the agenda impacting the Companies Registry as well as the court of appeal, before we hit headwinds when we tried to digitise the Lands Registry. The resistance mainly came from the people who legally benefited from a chaotic system. The little digitisation of the Lands Registry saw the revenue rise from 800m shillings to 9bn shillings in six months.
We managed to digitise some registries although we could have done better. We needed to build an army of supporters both from within and outside, but we had mixed reactions which delayed the project. However, we had laid the foundation upon which more digitisation will happen. This was good for the country since it was proof that we can fight governance matters through digitisation.
You are the honorary chair of the Alliance for Affordable Internet. What are its goals, and why? When do you want to achieve them by?
The Alliance for Affordable Internet, or A4AI, is a coalition of members from the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. Many of the world’s leading technology companies, governments and civil society organisations are on board. A4AI’s primary goal is to see the UN Broadband Commission Broadband Target of entry-level broadband services priced at less than 5% of average monthly income achieved.
Today, innovative technologies are emerging that make affordable access possible, but often they are held back by bad laws or outdated regulations. That’s why we are working directly with governments around the world to improve policy and regulatory frameworks and ensure that in the next five years, billions more people globally can afford to get online.
The internet has a great transformative potential that can positively impact on poverty. Research has shown that for every 10% increase in internet penetration, the economy grows by as much as 1.3%. Cheap, ubiquitous connectivity can also transform vital services such as health, education and banking. We have seen phenomenal change in Kenya where I played a role in pushing to increase internet penetration. We can replicate this success in other countries.
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