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Mobile Subscriber Growth in Africa

On February 20, Harvard Business School hosted its eleventh annual African Business Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  While the conference broadly addressed the continent, a number of breakout events focused on the centrality of mobile technology, as addressed in titles such as “Reaching Africa’s Un-banked Population,” and “African Telecom: Growth and New Opportunities.” The over 4 billion mobile phones now buzzing around the planet, however, hide the fact that in Africa mobile penetration is only 40 percent.

Mobile mixed with e-commerce may yet be the most empowering platform, in Africa and beyond. This “e-Mobility” is taking shape, as mobile payment platforms improve access to services, and reduce transaction costs associated with payments.  Lowering transaction costs saves time and travel, effects that improves household disposable income by between 5 and 30 percent. A CGAP report indicates that mobile transactions cost one-fifth of traditional ones.

Mobile banking and transaction enabled phones bring the un-banked population into the formal folds of financial services, a delicate process necessitating new trust, but one through which inflows of capital expand the ability of local banks to provide entrepreneurial loans, expanding business and jobs, and fueling growth.

One HBS panelist and McKinsey principal, Zakir Gaibi, focused on subscriber growth as a vital first step to improving mobile access.  Foremost, was the need to reduce handset costs to facilitate access within the ultra poor demographics of the regions in Africa, such as the Sahel.  In Niger, Chad, and even in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he noted that mobile penetration is cited as low as 10 percent.  High tele-density is not yet universal.

Subscriber growth in unsaturated markets will be contingent on reduced costs of access, notably in headset costs, and in voice service costs.  Due to poor power infrastructure, African telecommunications companies rely on expensive generators that drive up costs.  It’s often quipped that second to power companies telecommunication groups produce the most energy in Africa.  However, these costs are passed onto consumers in the form of expensive voice and data plans, some approaching per minute costs in developed markets, despite drastic differences in purchasing power.  Moreover, concurrent deficiencies in local human capital necessitate talent sourcing abroad, and ex-patriot retention packages impact consumer prices, further impeding subscriber growth in the poorest markets.

Countries that recognize mobile trends could capitalize in the form of economic growth, and increased employment opportunities.  Countries like Morocco have built upon expanding tele-density, and created an infrastructure that has enabled them to provide services to the European market.  Given their geographic and temporal proximity to the EU, and their linguistic overlap in French, Spanish, and English, mobile penetration, tele-density, and infrastructure investment have created a conduit for service export, economic growth, and human capacity building.

Perhaps investment in reducing headset materials cost could increase mobile penetration, improve access to mobile banking, help formalize financial services the poorest regions of Africa, facilitate greater access to capital, and improve growth.  Or then again maybe cheaper headsets coupled with mobile promotions and spotty service will mean that those Africans who currently carry two phones to compensate for poor coverage might just pick up a third.

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Internet Filtration in Sub-Saharan Africa

Internet penetration in Africa remains undeniably low.  According to the 2008 International Telecommunications Union, only five Sub-Saharan African countries had Internet penetration above 10 percent, and four of those were island nations.  While Internet at five-star hotels in the Seychelles might be widely available, at the other end of the spectrum, Sierra Leone can hardly boast over its 0.2 percent.  In fact, Zimbabwe is the only continental nation with greater than 10 percent penetration.  Perhaps not surprising on a continent where only 17 percent of Sub-Saharan Africans have access to electricity, there is evidence of forthcoming change.

On October 1, the OpenNet Initiative released a report on Internet Filtering in Sub-Saharan Africa, highlighting the potential for broadband in Africa, and still-inchoate governmental policy on monitoring new media. This recent release builds on and expands an ONI report focused on trends over 2006-2007.

While West and Southern Africa have been connected to international cable networks via the South Africa Telcom-3 (SAT-3) sub-marine fiber optic cable to India, much of Eastern Africa was disconnected until July 2009.  Until the arrival of the Seacon cable, East African Internet penetration had been limited by the repeated delays of the East African Submarine Cable System (EASSy).  EASSy will be complete in July 2010, and coupled with the United Nations’ 2007 announcement to leverage WiMAX (wireless Internet available up to 300 feet), the potential for broadband penetration reaches beyond East Africa, and deeper into the rural core of the continent.

Because the Internet is not yet ubiquitous in Africa, cyber-law, censorship, and policy response remains largely undetermined.  Though Zambia instituted cyber-crime law after a hacker turned the President’s photo –on the official website– into a cartoon, in many countries Internet law remains an extension of media precedent.

All of this, outlined comprehensively in the ONI report by Rebekah Heacock, provides the context from which they observed Internet surveillance and filtration in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Past observation in Africa indicated that IP, rather than URL blocking, is most common, and sporadic government raids on Internet cafes in Eritrea and Zimbabwe intimated Big Brother prowess. But while Zimbabwe maintains a strict surveillance regime, and a highly regimented national press, monitoring e-mail and allegedly even firing eight journalists who failed to adequately support Mugabe, ONI research confirmed that Zimbabwe is not filtering domestic Internet.  Across four countries observed, namely Ethiopia, Nigeria, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, only Ethiopia was guilty of Internet filtration. Ethiopia successfully blocked blogs as well as political reform and human rights sites, and arbitrarily allowed far more acrimonious sites.

While broadband is slowly encircling the continent, how Africa will respond to the URL is still largely TBD.

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From Broadband to Breadbasket

As addressed in Calestous Juma’s Berkman talk on September 15th, the African continent sits poised on the fulcrum of growth.   Market inefficiencies exist and are held in stasis until government reforms and deregulation opens floodgates of market opportunity, diversification, and stipulated foreign capital injections that create windfalls of improved accounting standards, corporate governance, and transparency. And then there’s technology.

Building upon rapidly advancing technology, Africa is attempting to leapfrog those previously requisite waypoints for growth.  Mobile phones have eclipsed the need for fixed-line communications.  High-bandwidth cables beginning to encircle the continent, coupled with Google’s support of middle-Earth orbit satellites, could lead to a data service revolution, even in rural Africa.  Mobile is trending past voice to data, and mobile is trending past communication to transaction.  The greatest threat to the ATM comes not in the form of bullet-proof glass “mobile banking” units used by Kenya’s Equity Bank, but in the form of hand-held mobile devices. The advent and adoption of transaction services that enable mobile payments such as Safaricom’s M-PESA in East Africa is beckoning obsolescence for brick and mortar banks.  Though Equity Bank has inspired millions of Kenyans to open bank accounts, and is currently home to over 50 percent of all Kenyan accounts, Safaricom’s novelty is groundbreaking and has inspired imitation.

For educated and established African entrepreneurs, these changes herald a time that could not be better.  Though capital markets remain under-developed, investment inflows –comprised of both Development Finance Institute (DFI), institutional, and private capital– are beginning to fuel expansion.  Operating costs in Africa remain higher than in the developed world, but capital structuring focused on post-investment management and execution is becoming more viable as Diaspora repatriation is improving education and presumed operational abilities. But behind the façade of these burgeoning global businesses, it’s still a different story.

Behind the capital injections and international press is a continent comprised of Small and Medium size Enterprise (SME) entrepreneurs, informal labor markets, and tremendous agricultural potential.  Companies such as Karuturi –which raises maize, palm, and flowers–are demonstrating that in East Africa it’s agriculture that can, per dollar of investment, impact the most people via employment. Though technology will continue to improve the lives of Africans through greater access to information, the advent of broadband and mobile will certainly change lifestyle, but may not yet change livelihood.  Tech application for agriculture may not be as sexy as mobile banking, but it is these synergies –moving from broadband to breadbasket– that will empower change in both lifestyle and livelihood across Africa.

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US Threatens Restrictions on Kenyan Officials

The BBC reports that US officials have threatened to prohibit a number of senior government officials from traveling to the United States and that the US may also weigh in more critically against Kenyan requests before international financial institutions. The list of officials includes MPs and government ministers who have refused to create a tribunal to look into post-election ethnic violence in 2007, when over 1300 were killed. The impact of the Internet, SMS and other technology was an important part of both the orchestration of that violence (SMS), but the crisis also saw the creation of Ushahidi, a new tool to crowdsource tracking of violent conflict, and showed the importance of Kenyan bloggers who provided factual, on-the-ground reporting for both a domestic and international news audience. As Josh Goldstein and Juliana Rotich wrote in our Kenyan case study:

Using the lens of the 2007–2008 Kenyan presidential election crisis, this case study illustrates how digitally networked technologies, specifically mobile phones and the Internet, were a catalyst to both predatory behavior such as ethnic-based mob violence and to civic behavior such as citizen journalism and human rights campaigns. The paper concludes with the notion that while digital tools can help promote transparency and keep perpetrators from facing impunity, they can also increase the ease of promoting hate speech and ethnic divisions.

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Google Earth on Darfur

Despite the global implications of what has been called the “21st Century’s Genocide,” online interest on “Darfur” is predominately regional, with primary interest stemming from East Africa.  In an attempt to expose the crisis to 200 million users of Google Earth, the “Crisis in Darfur” Initiative on Google Earth coordinates with the United States Holocaust Museum Memorial and uses data from the U.S. State Departments Humanitarian Information Unit to show 3,300 destroyed villages. For 200 locations, it even features before and after photographs. The “Crisis in Darfur” Initiative exposes the decimation of more than 100,000 homes, and is the first of forthcoming joint projects to map Genocide. Exposure of the crisis cannot alone impel action, but perhaps exposure to 200 million Google Earth users will deepen understanding, help citizens exercise a democratic right, apply political pressure, and change policy.  The broad use of Google tools is empowering citizen activism, and helping policymakers understand citizen interests.

Behind the Internet news Meme curve, the New York Times last week published an editorial on the topic “Are We What We Search?” in which author Eduardo Porter considers the scope of the Google oracle:

“Polls are a useful indicator of people’s tastes because they ask people what they like. Prediction markets require players to forecast. Google searches offer a roundabout impression of the world: what people want, what they fear, what they expect. It’s harder to tell what they mean.”

Google Earth and Internet search analytics do require an understanding of user demography, linguistic preferences, user behavior, and search query context, but understanding what people do on Google provides insight into the geographic concentration and amplitudes of interest. Search context will determine the scope and direction of interest.  Google Earth is relevant in that it extends access to information, and provides citizens with the knowledge that empowers their democratic voice offline. Porter concludes that polling is more readily comprehensible than search, yet polling is notoriously deceptive and unreliable.  In Indonesia, polling indicated that Jusuf Kalla would contend for second place in their July Presidential elections.  Google Trends contended he would place third, and the latter got the election ordering correct.  In this case, Internet search analytics proved more accurate than polling. While certainly not yet confirmation of “the oracle at Mountain View,” one must also question what polls can truly tell us.  As the Carnegie Council’s Devin Stewart puts it, “Polls only tell us how people answer polls.”

The advent of enhanced transparency via Google Earth in Darfur, and Google search brought into Larry Summers’ second-floor West Wing office, has created an emerging field of Web Ecology.  The mouse may yet become mightier than the pen, and many are anxious to understand in what ways, and to what extent.

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News Flash: Bad People Use the Internet Too!

It’s sometimes easy to forget that the Internet isn’t always used just by do-gooders to do good. Alas, security analyst Bruce Schneier reminds us bad people can use the Internet too. However, he encourages us to avoid the urge to shut down new technologies, like Google Earth, just because they might some day, possibly, be used by terrorists.

If India bans Google Earth, a future terrorist won’t be able to use it to plan; nor will anybody else. Open Wi-Fi networks are useful for many reasons, the large majority of them positive, and closing them down affects all those reasons. Terrorist attacks are very rare, and it is almost always a bad trade-off to deny society the benefits of a communications technology just because the bad guys might use it too.

Our case study on post-election violence in Kenya is a perfect example of how during one episode of violence, individuals can simultaneously use the Internet for positive change (Ushahidi), while others employ it for more nefarious ends (text messages coordinating violence). In the Kenya example, we saw the same impulse by government to shut down the cell phone network that Schneier observes today, but note that instead of shutting off Kenyans’ primary form of communication, they chose to allow the cell carrier to remain in service while also sending messages encouraging peace and calm to all subscribers.

As Schneier concludes:

Criminals have used telephones and mobile phones since they were invented. Drug smugglers use airplanes and boats, radios and satellite phones. Bank robbers have long used cars and motorcycles as getaway vehicles, and horses before then. I haven’t seen it talked about yet, but the Mumbai terrorists used boats as well. They also wore boots. They ate lunch at restaurants, drank bottled water, and breathed the air. Society survives all of this because the good uses of infrastructure far outweigh the bad uses, even though the good uses are – by and large – small and pedestrian and the bad uses are rare and spectacular. And while terrorism turns society’s very infrastructure against itself, we only harm ourselves by dismantling that infrastructure in response – just as we would if we banned cars because bank robbers used them too.

Now, if only I could take a bottle of shampoo on my next flight….

Hat Tip: Sullivan

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Aid Critic Easterly Joins Blogosphere

Look out ICT4Ders, NYU economist and prominent aid critic William Easterly has started a blog, Aid Watch, whose objective is to “be brutally honest when aid is not helping the poor, but also praising it when it is.” His first post takes a shot at recent Op-Eds by World Bank president Robert Zoellick calling for donors to pony up more money for the Bank without necessarily calling for more accountability or commitments on how it will be spent. A TARP for IFIs, perhaps. I tend to think that Easterly’s criticisms on accountability are a bit overblown (at least outside of the Bank) since bilateral donors and NGOs I’ve worked with tend to spend an inordinate amount of time proving they are ‘responsible, well coordinated and achieving results,’ instead of actually implementing programs and connecting with their local counterparts. That said, he made some good points (and a lot of waves) with his book The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, where he criticizes high minded “planners” in foreign aid and praises the “searchers” who find local solutions to local problems. He clearly welcomes and responds to comments and constructive criticism on the blog, so should be a great place to go for debate on foreign aid, which the Obama administration has pledged to increase, along with the Gates Foundation, which announced that it will also increase giving, even as its endowment shrinks.

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Ushahidi and Click Diagnostics Finalists for Innovation Award

Congratulations to our friends at Ushahidi and Click Diagnostics who filled two of the top three finalists spots (out of 115 nominated projects) in USAID’s Development 2.0 Challenge. The Click Diagnostics CEO is Mridul Chowdhury who graduated from the Kennedy School, is a longtime friend of the Berkman Center, and also wrote the Internet and Democracy case study on Burma. Besides being a documentary film maker and a super nice guy, he’s also co-Founder of Click Diagnostics, which uses technology to improve rural health care delivery in the developing world. And we’ve already sung the praises of Ushahidi, whose story is detailed in our other recent case on Kenya’s post election violence. I see that Ushahidi is now also being used by Al Jazeera to map violence in Gaza. Several Berkman friends helped create Ushahidi including Ory Okolloh and Erik Hersman. You can see Erik and several other important Kenyan bloggers in this short film made after our digital activism event last year–along with a number of other leading digital activists. Neither walked away with the top prize in this one, but congratulations again to the Ushahidi community and the whole team at Click Diagnostics for snagging the runners up prizes!

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I&D Project Releases Case Study of Post-Election Crisis In Kenya

We’re following up yesterday’s release of our Burma case study with a look at Africa and the role of technology in Kenya’s post-election violence. This case study builds off of the work of Joshua Goldstein and Juliana Rotich, examining how last year’s post-election domestic conflict in Kenya was both exacerbated and mitigated by the networked public sphere.

In doing so, their effort is to broaden the existing scope of research on how technology is making its impact felt in political action even within the developing world. They write:

Written largely through the lens of rich nations, scholars have developed theories about how digital technology affects democracy. However, largely due to a paucity of evidence, these theories have excluded the experience of Sub-Saharan Africa, where meaningful access to digital tools is only beginning to emerge, but where the struggles between failed state and functioning democracy are profound.

The entire report is available on our site here.

It’s a great piece: Joshua and Juliana have put together a very nuanced examination of the situation, and it goes a long way in bringing out the complexities of the ways in which networked technologies function in times of turmoil.

A2K3: Connectivity and Democratic Ideals

Also in the final A2K3 panel, The Global Public Sphere: Media and Communication Rights, Natasha Primo, National ICT policy advocacy coordinator for the Association for Progressive Communications, discusses three questions that happen to be related to my current research. 1) Where is the global in the global public sphere? 2) Who is the public in the global public sphere? and 3) How to we get closer to the promise of development and the practice of democratic values and freedom of expression?

She begins with the premise that we are in an increasingly interconnected world, in economic, political, and social spheres, and you will be excluded if you are not connected. She also asserts the premise that connection to the internet can lead to the opening of democratic spaces and – in time – a true global public sphere.

Primo, like Ó Siochrú in my blog post here, doesn’t see any global in global public sphere. She thinks this is just a matter of timing, and not a systematic problem. She notes that the GSM organization predicts 5 billion people on the GSM network by 2015, whereas we now have 1 of 6 billion connection to the internet> note that Primo believes internet access will come through the cell phone for many people who are not connected today. She refers us to Richard Heeksproposal for a Blackberry-for-development. Heeks is professor and chair of the Development Informatics Department at the University of Manchester. But Primo sees the cost as the major barrier to connectivity among LCDs and thinks this will abate over time.

With regard to the cost of connectivity, she notes that Africa has a 10% internet subscription rate versus in Asia-Pacific and 72% in Europe. South Africa is planning an affordable broadband campaign: to have some facilities declared ‘essential’ to make them available to the public at cost to the service providers. This comes from the A2K idea of partnership for higher education in Africa – African universities are to have cheaper access. She also sees authoritarian behavior by states as another obstacle to connectivity. She cites research by our very own OpenNet Initiative that 24 of 40 countries studied are filtering the internet and using blocking tools to prevent freedom of expression. This is done via blocking blogging sites and YouTube. She is worried about how this behavior by governments impacts peoples’ behavior when they are online. She notes surveys that show two extreme reactions: people either practice substantial selfcensorship or put their lives on the line for the right to express an opinion.

Primo notes the cultural obstacles to the global public sphere. She relates a story that some groups are not accustomed to hearing opinions that diverge from their own and will, innocently, flag them as inappropriate content. Dissenting opinions come back online after a short amount of time, but with the delay dialogue can be lost.

Crossposted on Victoria Stodden

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