Why Africa Needs More Broadband than Foreign Aid

broadband africa

Africa is a troubled continent – a place where poverty, corruption, HIV, and general underdevelopment plague the populace. People from better developed climes often see Africa as a place in dire need of foreign aid – food, potable water and other necessities for human survival. While this is a valid concern, it’s been shown that foreign aid establishments and organisations are only treating the symptoms and causing dependence among the masses. Most of the foreign aid given in Africa is for food, drugs, water and other basic items, but none of these empower the people to provide for themselves.This reminds one of the saying: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Foreign aids encourage dependency in the very people they aim to help as well as corruption by the leaders of these African states that receive this foreign aid. This only goes to show that foreign aids don’t encourage development in Africa – they hinder it.

According to a paper published by the European Centre for Development Policy Management, although Africa has 30% of the world’s minable resources, even the African countries with relatively strong governance are failing to distribute this wealth, or even invest it adequately to bring about development. The “resource curse” is sustained by an excess of reliance on mining industries, foreign aid seeking and corruption among politicians. If properly extracted and managed by indigenes, Africa’s resources are able to completely eradicate poverty and drive economic growth and development – things that foreign aid cannot accomplish. One example is Zimbabwe, blessed with several minerals – gold, platinum and diamond to mention a few. Out of which, only about a fifth are being fully exploited. If these are mined and processed to increase their value, Zimbabwe would have a much stronger economy, and be in a position to handle the challenges that commonly lead African states to request for foreign aid. Another glaring example is Nigeria – the supposed giant of Africa has placed so much dependence on its crude oil that the current crash in petroleum prices worldwide, has seen Nigeria plunge into a recession, with its Naira performing woefully on the international market.

broadband africaIt has been suggested that since foreign aid hinders, rather than helps, the methods and motivations for providing it should change. Oscar Carreras of the Ava foundation said “Foreign aid should not be poverty compensation, if there’s a premium to poverty, there will always be poverty. The metric for foreign aid should be value creation capability – For every dollar you make, I will give you another.” This approach gives a new perspective to the matter of provision of foreign aid. Which is that instead of giving handouts – we should motivate instead. The idea of another dollar for every one made is powerful incentive to push people in despairing situations to think and work their way out of their conditions instead of going cap in hand to request for foreign aid. Akhter Hamid Khan has an interesting suggestion for how this can be done. According to him, poor people only need assistance of social guidance, technical guidance and credit – no hand outs. There is need to differentiate between poor and destitute. A poor person can help himself – only destitutes need handouts.


tech startups - broadband africa
Distribution of tech startups across Africa

On the issue of the kind of foreign aid to offer, tech startups is one area in which Africa has shown promise. Young people all over the continent have shown amazing potential, with innovative ideas that they give everything to develop – little wonder, as these ideas are their ticket out of a life of poverty and dependence on other people’s generosity. Though the mortality rate of African tech startups is very high, this does not prevent these young entrepreneurs from giving their all to make these ideas work out with, or without foreign aid. What they lack in vital tools such as broadband internet, they make up for with innovative ideas and a tenacity for success. As for the methods of funding for these startups – Nigerian entrepreneur and founder of a startup that eventually blew – Mark Essien of Hotels.ng has some ideas. According to him, we have to look at what doesn’t work. Giving people fresh out of African universities USD 20,000 to found a startup is one approach that has failed. Quoting T.P Barnum in “The art of money making” – Give a boy twenty thousand dollars and put him in business, and the chances are that he will lose every dollar of it before he is a year older. This has been proven time and time again to not work. So what then works? A marketing colleague stated that “Most founders should work for 5 years at a startup before starting one.” He posits that this is the startup funding recipe that will work, because “far more successful startups have been created through other startups than through incubators.”

This brings me to my point. You cannot have a successful tech startup culture without readily available broadband – this is a fact. The positive impact that broadband in Africa will have is as massive as the continent itself. According to the World Bank, in emerging markets, a 10% point increase in broadband penetration accelerates economic growth by 1.38 percentage points – more than in high-income countries. The amount of existing analysis – which is increasing continuously, further proves that an investment in broadband infrastructure at a continental level is not a luxury, but a necessity for economic growth. Other advantages of accessible broadband are in the health and education sectors, where broadband internet is essential in the training of medical staff and education professionals, reaching numbers that traditional training methods have failed to obtain. E-education covers basic primary schooling through all levels to teacher training and academic research, with enormous potential for geographic reach and return on investment for Africa now and in the digital future.

broadband africa and the rest of the worldBut there still remains a long way to go, because the level of broadband in Africa is low, and despite a higher amount of mobile phone subscriptions, as at November 2015, 71.4% of Africa’s population did not have internet access. Only 10 African countries have mobile cellular prices that are affordable and this is hardly sufficient to make the necessary positive impact on the general economy of countries in Africa. Broadband penetration in Africa, though on the rise is still a far way to go to produce the required impact. Plans to bring broadband internet to Africa have gained some traction, but achieving complete connectivity will take time. GSMA predicted in the “Mobile Economy Sub-Saharan Africa 2015 Report” that mobile broadband penetration in Africa will grow from above 20% to almost 60% by 2020. The challenges are great, but despite them, Africa shows huge potential – addressing her broadband needs helps feed the satellite industry, while boosting Africa’s GDP. The best approach to deliver broadband in Africa is by executing one successful broadband project at a time. The last six years have seen the World bank involved heavily in the financing of broadband projects in many parts of Africa. Significant among these are the broadband projects in Western, Eastern and Central Africa. A total of 23 countries are being served by the broadband projects – RCIP, WARCIP and CAB which are receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from the world bank. The main development pillars are usually tied to increasing broadband capacity and creating an enabling environment for ICT adoption. The goals are lower broadband internet access costs, extension of the reach of broadband networks and creating an enabling environment for ICT capacity among others. The phases of African broadband projects are the same across multiple countries and are only slightly altered to suit local needs.

African tech startups have also evolved in the past few years, putting the continent on the digital innovation map, with examples ranging from Kenya’s M-Pesa and Ushahidi to Nigeria’s Hotels.ng and Iroko tv – examples that would not have been possible without broadband, but were without foreign aid. The atmosphere in the African startup crowd is an optimistic one – these young entrepreneurs act as though failure is not an option for them, even with the odds not in their favor – after all there is no lack of success stories that made it without any form of foreign aid to motivate and inspire them. But without readily available broadband internet, these startups can only go so far. The tech crowd, together with the possibilities in health, education and a myriad other sectors are the reason Africa will benefit more from readily available broadband internet than she ever will from foreign aid. When you allow people to determine their future through innovation and creation of opportunities, you indeed feed them for a lifetime.

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