Are we solving the right problems?

This week has been a big week for connectivity on the continent. 

First, an announcement from Vodacom, that it has partnered with Google subsidiary Loon to deploy its Internet balloons to expand mobile network access in two rural provinces in northern Mozambique. This coming just weeks after the deployment of balloons for Loon’s first commercial partnership, with Telkom Kenya, over central Kenya.

Then, Facebook announced, in partnership with China Mobile International and several leading telcos servicing the continent, plans to build a massive subsea cable that, once live, “should be able to deliver more than the total combined capacity of all subsea cables serving Africa today.”

These are all incredibly exciting projects and their implementation will make the Internet cheaper, faster and/or more readily available on the continent. 

However, the question is, once more people on the continent have Internet (particularly in less connected regions), what will they do with it? 

Coverage vs. Usage

Or maybe the better question is, will people do anything with the Internet once connected? 

In many respects, the problem and opportunity of mobile connectivity on the continent isn’t one of coverage, it’s of usage and utility. 

According to the GSMA’s The State of Mobile Internet Connectivity report, last published in July 2019, 30% of the continent is still not covered – this lags behind the 10% globally – but 46% are covered but not using mobile Internet.

GSMA State of global mobile internet connectivity.
Source: GSMA

Looking at Mozambique in particular, where the Loon’s newest partnership has just been announced, the country’s usage gap remains high. Per DataReportal, while mobile Internet connections are equivalent to 50% of their population, just one-third that amount are Internet users, and less than one-half of Internet users are active social media users.

Mozambique mobile internet and social media use - DataReportal.
Source: DataReportal

While infrastructure is, of course, the main barrier to coverage, there are three categories that impact usage – affordability (both of data and hardware), consumer readiness, and content and services. 

The aforementioned infrastructure projects address coverage and affordability (of data). But infrastructure challenges are a function of low usage, as well. Per the GSMA report, 

Deploying infrastructure for rural coverage is largely an economic challenge. This is due to the higher costs required to roll out infrastructure in these areas and the lower ARPU and lower population density of rural users. It can cost up to twice as much to deploy new base stations in rural areas; they can be three times more expensive to run; and the average revenue can be a tenth of an urban deployment. This lack of return on investment presents a significant obstacle to extending the reach of mobile broadband infrastructure.

While much focus is put on decreasing the cost of infrastructure and data, I’m especially interested in efforts to improve topline utilization and revenue. It comes down, most of all, to relevance and utility. 

Mobile Connectivity Index

The GSMA has a great data mapping initiative called the Mobility Connectivity Index, scores connectivity, by country, across the four aforementioned connectivity enablers – infrastructure, affordability, consumer readiness, and content and services – as well as an overall index score. 

Here’s how Sub-Saharan Africa scores, on average (see sorted dataset here):

  • Index Score: 38.42
  • Infrastructure: 38.85
  • Affordability: 38.76
  • Consumer Readiness: 49.97
  • Content and Services: 31.20

That last score – Content and Services – jumped out at me. There’s a sizeable lag relative to the other enabler categories – and it’s something acknowledged by the GSMA in their mobile Internet report, 

There can be a lag between creating an enabling environment for mobile internet and seeing a significant increase in adoption.

Within the Content and Services category, there are three dimensions – local relevance, availability, and security. African countries are doing particularly poorly amongst the local relevance dimension. 

Hence the aforementioned lag – once connectivity is brought to an area, it takes time for digital literacy initiatives to show dividends, for contextually relevant apps to be built for local problem-solution sets, for skills to be developed and for trust to be garnered amongst users. 

And we can see – in spite of a higher than average score on Consumer Readiness – that literacy and skills are the top barrier to mobile Internet adoption, with relevance as a high barrier, as well. 

Top barriers to mobile internet use in low- and middle-income countries - GSMA.
Source: GSMA

Are we solving the right problems? 

The off-grid solar industry has had an analogous experience to telcos – once they built the infrastructure, there was still the question of utilization. And in some instances, these companies discovered that their prospective end-users in rural Africa didn’t have any electronics to power with their newly installed electricity. 

As a result, M-KOPA’s Solar Home Set, for example, bundles lights, a television and fan together with their solar panel infrastructure, or why Fenix’s Power Boost bundle includes hair clippers and a speaker.   

Similarly, the connectivity company BRCK, in Kenya, recognized the need – and opportunity – to take their offerings one step further to better serve their customers. From a conversion with BRCK’s CEO Erik Hersman in a past episode of The Flip, 

We started as a hardware company trying to build the most rugged routers and modems for the frontier markets, but we quickly realized that maybe we’re solving the wrong problem – and that we shouldn’t just be trying to build the best product for internet connectivity, but we should be trying to get people online – that’s the real goal. 

Now, BRCK’s primary product is Moja, a free public wifi network (built with BRCK’s ruggedized hardware) that offers free content to its users, and monetizes through selling content caching, digital engagement and computation services to businesses.

Nowhere is this dynamic more prevalent than in the development space. For those who have read Clayton Christenson and Efosa Ojomo’s Prosperity Paradox, you’ll recall the lessons Efosa’s clean water foundation, which he recently recounted to make an analogous argument around COVID-19, in a piece entitled “African countries don’t need donated ventilators without revamping their health systems first”

Building water wells seemed like the best and quickest way to solve the problem, but a few months after building them, each one had broken down since the communities lacked the capacity or expertise to maintain them… Through that experience, I learned a hard lesson: even when there seems to be an urgent need, simply providing resources without considering the local context is rarely the right approach. 

To be sure, I don’t mean to insinuate that connectivity infrastructure shouldn’t be addressed or that the Facebook or Loon projects are not worthwhile endeavors. I believe the opposite. But once the Loon balloons launch or the undersea cables are laid, only then does the work begin. 

What role ought Google or Facebook play in developing (or supporting or subsidizing) local content or a skills development program to coincide with the infrastructure deployment? To what extent is it solely the local ecosystem’s responsibility? 

And what should we build, particularly from a content and software perspective? How well do we understand the underlying factors behind the continent’s 16% mobile social media penetration? What if rural Mozambicans have no use for Facebook – then what? 

Mobile internet and social media use in Africa - DataReportal.
Source: DataReportal

Meanwhile, Africa-focused social networks like Dikalo are doing 1 million messages per day and have recently eclipsed 80 million messages on their platform. And Nigerians Internet users visit Nairaland more often than Twitter. 

To that end, it’s incumbent upon the ecosystem to educate its western counterparts, as well, about what ought to be built and how projects of this kind ought to be deployed to ensure success. Of course, the Loon balloon initiatives in Kenya and Mozambique are great initiatives. But what good are they if usage still remains low? 

Notes from around the ecosystem

Our friends at Briter Bridges have open sourced their deals tracker data, which breaks down investments in the ecosystem by startup and funder, deal stage, sector and geography.

While we may be webinar’d out by now, one initiative, The Nest, remains exciting. It’s a Shark Tank-style digital pitch competition, which has thus far resulted in over $135,000 in funding commitments for entrepreneurs around the continent.

The layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts in the African tech ecosystem have commenced. Perhaps the silver lining – talent is available!

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