Africa: The Model for Internet Connectivity as a Global Right

By Desire Banse, Prometheus Computing UAS Innovations Group Lead, Contractor at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

Africa is an example of rapid change that is centered on access and measurable change. For example, Google is building an Artificial Intelligence (AI) Laboratory in Ghana. Cote d’Ivoire has brought online its supercomputer in its ‘Centre National de Calcul’, following the success we saw in South Africa, with Senegal in line for the third implementation. Through massive infrastructure projects, digital skills training for millions and investments into the African startup ecosystem, Google is tackling the problems with infrastructure and last mile connectivity. Other companies such as Microsoft, Uber, Facebook are present or planning to be integral partners as well. There are many initiatives such as the West Africa Regional Communications Infrastructure Project from the World Bank. This phenomenon is explained by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, “unexpected events of large magnitude and consequence and their dominant role in history.” We live in a world of exponential change, opening opportunities for new solutions. Oftentimes, there is an inherent conflict in determining simple solutions to complex problems. 

Let’s take a look at Burkina Faso. In 2002, we were paying 1.78 USD for one hour in cyber-cafe. Mainly to utilize Yahoo Mail, or chat on MSN. We knew how to change the clock of the computer to mess with the 60 minutes countdown. In 2005, we were exchanging MP3 files via infrared on early smartphones. In 2012, with Friends of Burkina Faso, we funded a Computer Technology Center in Koudougou, run by Peace Corps Volunteer Ethan Heppner. The kids impressed us by truly taking advantage of the opportunity. They soon were making money by refurbishing computers and mastering system administration, website building. Today 500Mb of data costs 5.35 USD, a tenth of the average monthly wages, used to access Facebook, Gmail, Youtube and others. The metrics I run demonstrate an average of a total upload of approximately 10 Mbps over three telecommunication carriers.

Most people use global access to the internet via their cell phones. In response, the Burkino Faso government has launched a mobile platform to pay taxes online, which demonstrates a desire to grow more accessibility options for the average person.

Change agents such as Dr. David Bray, Executive Director at People Centered Internet (PCI), and Innovation Officer Jennifer Snow, who runs SOFWERX in Tampa, Florida, support innovation labs “to encourage collisions between innovators and special operations officials.” In 2018, I participated in an Instructable Hackathon event from SOFWERX called SOFCON . I then went to Burkina Faso where I used drones to showcase how you can map the electrical grid and conduct inspections of electrical infrastructures, solar panels to resolve incidents faster. A month later, at Asilomar Microcomputer Workshop (AMW), we discussed how Africa is – and will be – a technology hub for experimentation and development. July 2018, the Government of Burkina Faso invited me to its first forum on the diaspora and how it can bring innovation, change and participation to the efforts of developing the country. The President, the Prime Minister, the ministry of finance, ministry of commerce, ministry of foreign affairs and the ministry of African Integration and the diaspora welcomed 300 participants from dozens of countries. About 50 Ambassadors joined also. Discussions resulted in a document that was signed into a list of action items. During that meeting, internet connection was free and performed at around 2.5 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload, from my tests using Ookla SpeedTest.

Dr. Bray’s contributions have been helpful in many aspects:

  • Finding other change agents: Through the Creative Brainstorming events that Dr. Bray organizes, I met many thought leaders who are dedicated to innovative development. 
  • Implementing Creative spaces: “In creative spaces, change agents can show what’s possible, build a coalition of the willing, and demonstrate that we can take steps forward.” This inspired me as the UAS Innovations Group Lead at Prometheus Computing, and as a change agent.
  • Dr. Bray’s insights on “mass collaboration at scale, setting goals effectively and communication in communities connected with zero degree of distance.” How do you connect 300 people living in 50 countries to collaborate with a focus to the development efforts of a country in West Africa? This is great experiment where collective intelligence, civil dialogue, diversity really come together to deliver change and metrics associated with improving people’s livelihood. In Dr. Bray’s words “In times of exponential times, we need expertise and experiments”.
  • I’d also light to highlight Dr. Bray’s colleague, Jennifer Snow, who helped showcase my work and exchanging with a wider audience.

It’s clear that these trends will continue as we speed change through open communication. Historically, we have seen surges of inventions in the European Middle Ages, shortly after re-establishing communications after the Dark Ages. The phenomenal advances in technology of the last century are tied to major leaps in telecommunications. At the African Internet Summit (AIS) in 2018 in Dakar, it was announced that 62.9% of Senegal has access to Internet, of which 88.6% on their cell phone. In my paper “On the Internet Connectivity in Africa” presented at the 7th European Alliance for Innovation (EAI) International Conference on e‐Infrastructure and e‐Services for Developing Countries (AFRICOMM) in Cotonou, Benin. Published by NIST, we showed that in 2014, the African routers represent about 1.6% of the world’s routers (and 1.2% of the world’s links). And the number of country-level links within Africa is increasing, despite Africa’s predominantly smaller country-level links to the rest of the world. This essentially means that Africa is largely dependent on the other continents (or satellite) for Internet connectivity, with an eye for more independent growth.

A people-centered approach to the Internet is vital on a global scale and much needed in Burkina Faso, Kenya, Ghana, and Rwanda. In September 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development conducted at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, determined which Information Communication Technologies (ICT) have great potential to accelerate human progress.

Mei Lin Fung, Co-Founder at PCI describes it perfectly “PCI’s strategy is for people to work in learning networks of communities where people learn from others to improve their own communities. Breakthroughs by any one community or team or person can spread rapidly across the network and be adapted to the local situation, by local people who then contribute back their learnings.”

To reach our goals, we will have to think fast together and come up with an economic engine to support the internet as a commercial enterprise in developing countries. In addition to grassroots innovation and policy development, people are the fundamental focus. What is the incentive for a young school girl in a remote village, for the farmer in the South-East, for a merchant, a businessman in Bobo-Dioulasso? Internet can mean quality time with family abroad, it also means connectivity that enables telemedicine, government services, mobile banking, precision agriculture, smart cities, public safety services, e-commerce and so much more. It will be a force for change and social good that can touch everyone. If it is affordable, open, available and accessible, this balances the educated upper echelon with uneducated and underserved populations. We disseminate the knowledge and provide mechanisms to deliver information so that people are encouraged to go out there and ask the right questions and offer solutions in order to live better lives.

Sources :

http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/424991498748589008/Cadre-de-politique-de-reinstallation-du-PRICAO-BF-FA

https://ws680.nist.gov/publication/get_pdf.cfm?pub_id=919630

https://peoplecentered.net/2017/05/21/the-internets-next-frontier-getting-better-at-getting-better-together/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_swan_theory

https://www.internetsummit.africa/images/ais18-meeting-report.pdf

https://bf.usembassy.gov/beyond-word-excel-power-point-computer-maintenance-teacher-training-volunteer-ethan-heppner/

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