Research Reveals Obstacles to Internet Access in Africa
By Irene Gaitirira
Published August 6, 2017
Barriers to internet access across Kenya (Eastern Africa), Rwanda (Central Africa), Nigeria (Western Africa) and South Africa (Southern Africa) have been revealed by a study that looked at how citizens use the internet when data is subsidised and when it is not.
The study, carried out by Research ICT Africa in collaboration with Mozilla and whose results are published in the 2016 International Telecommunications Union report, estimates that only about 25% of the population of Africa has access to the internet.
In all the countries, access to subsidised data does not result significantly in new users going online.
Poor network quality and coverage limits the consumption of subsidised data since some respondents, especially in rural areas of Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa, report that service providers with those offerings do not have coverage in their area.
Women face additional barriers to internet use, including concern of being exposed to inappropriate content online and its consequences in their intimate relationships and family responsibilities.
“Our research reveals that a significant urban-rural divide remains in opportunities to access the internet,” says Dr Alison Gillwald, Executive Director of Research ICT Africa. “Too often the debate over zero rating glosses over the fact that many people in rural communities don’t even have access to the best subsidized offerings and have to spend largely disproportionate amounts of their already low income on mobile access, and that’s assuming they can even find electricity to charge their devices.”
Saying that “This research makes clear that it’s critical we all focus more on barriers like healthy competition outside urban areas, electricity, digital literacy, and gender power relations,” Jochai Ben-Avie, Senior Global Policy Manager at Mozilla, says “More must be done to connect the unconnected.”
The study, that is backed Mozilla, shows that affordability is a barrier to internet access in Nigeria where ‘Many rural users see the internet as their access to the civilized world and the gateway to the places around the globe where they have friends and family’.
“Even in a country with some of the lowest rates for data and devices in Africa, the cost of buying a smartphone in Nigeria is still a challenge for many,” says Gillwald. “Affordability gets disproportionate attention, but we need to do much more to improve digital literacy and supply side issues like network quality and speed.”
Turning to Kenya where 38 million people, i.e about 82% of the population, were reported to be online by the Communications Authority of Kenya in 2016, the study shows that many users in this country are offline due to prohibitive costs and security fears. Here, the study shows that ‘Social media tops the list of uses for the internet and there is even a perception among some users that the internet is about social media’ and that the ‘price of data bundles and internet-enabled phones render the cost of doing what most users want to do online prohibitive to many’.
“While internet access is good in Kenya relative to elsewhere in Africa, real barriers remain to internet use,” says Dr Gillwald. “If we don’t look beyond access issues to the real concerns around privacy and security, for example, we’ll never bring all of the internet to all people.”
There is heavy use of subsidised data in Rwanda where the Government’s Vision 2020 strategy to enable the central African country to leap-frog the key stages of industrialization and transform her agro-based economy into a service, information-rich and knowledge-based one that is globally competitive, is being implemented in earnest.
Though internet penetration is relatively high, the study shows that the diversity of content accessed by participants iis relatively low.
Most participants only use a very limited number of websites and services, making heavy use of subsidized data.
Dr Gillwald notes that “Rwanda has been a real leader in bringing people online, including through innovative models like internet connected buses and other public Wi-Fi efforts” but the “limited number of sites and services Rwandans use points to the need for the government and other stakeholders to consider issues beyond access that leave many Rwandans accessing just a small part of the internet.”
“Many Rwandans are still stuck in the walled gardens of subsidized services and haven’t experienced the full diversity of the open internet,” says Ben-Avie. “Rwanda is a fascinating testbed of different experiments in connecting the unconnected and we hope the Government of Rwanda and other stakeholders will focus on solutions like Equal Rating that seek to bring all of the internet to all people.”
Though there is great potential in the future of internet use for these sub-Saharan African countries, the study concludes that intensity of use could be enhanced through redirecting universal services funds directed at access towards supporting the rollout of public Wi-Fi points at all public facilities such as schools, clinics, libraries and police stations.
The study concludes that Without interventions to redress broader social and economic inequality in society, the entry of more sophisticated services and devices will only amplify digital inequality.