Enough Talk of the Problem: Whats the solution to connecting the next billion in Africa?

Chenai Chair
28 Apr 2016

Focusing on the issue of connectivity first as part of internet governance and access as a right, a panel organised by Sylvia Musalagani (HiVOS East Africa) and Chenai Chair (Research ICT Africa) brought together panelists Hanane Boujemi (IGMENA), Riva Jalipa (Article 19 East Africa), Mohamed El Gohary(Global Voices) Jochai Ben-Avie (Mozilla) and Chenai Chair at Rightscon in Silicon Valley to suggest solutions to the problems facing their respective regions in ensuring connectivity of the next billion in Africa. Emulating a multi-stakeholder approach to internet governance debates, the panel had business, academia, and civil society stakeholders.

As one panelist pointed out, regardless of access to all resources to ensure connectivity, there is no one silver bullet to connecting the next billion. However, it can be done through a multifaceted approach that looks beyond technology, taking into account demand and supply side issues. The combined silver bullet would include:

  • developing user skills and capabilities
  • an efficient regulatory environment
  • diversity and relevance of content
  • addressing contextual user issues beyond ICTs and
  • Public Private Partnerships.

For Mozilla, user capabilities were seen as crucial to ensuring connectivity for the next billion. This moves beyond the idea of simply providing internet access to actually assessing whether people know what the internet is, what they can do with it, and developing their e-skills. Mozilla in collaboration with GSMA, found that first-time internet users who received one on one training were more capable in their use of the internet than those who did not. A new business model for private players would be to move beyond supply-side investment but user capability building as well.

IGMENA focused on the importance of a functioning and efficient policy and regulatory environment. Regulation must ensure transparency and foster a good business environment that would encourage competition for global and local players. For example, where governments choose to ban Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) services to protect telecom operators, they are taking away cheaper affordable options to communicate that would enhance connectivity. Unfair regulatory environment stifles investment as well as innovation.

The business sectors’ interest in connectivity may be consumer or profit-driven while governments seek connectivity to increase social development and economic investment. Private Public partnerships can bring these two interests together to ensure benefits to the end user. This was pointed out by Global Voices as one of the solutions to ensure connectivity. Government engagement of the private sector would allow for efficient and effective programs of ensuring connectivity. Language and diversity of the content online as well needs to be expanded to ensure access for all. There cannot be talk of bringing the next billion online when there is nothing relevant for them or nothing they can understand in their language of choice. The question is then “do we educate the new users to speak English, the dominant language online, or rather adjust the online system to adapt to different languages?”

The next billion that need to be connected are not a homogenous group. There is a need to interrogate the social-economic contexts to ensure relevant strategies to connecting them as pointed out by Article 19 East Africa. Levels of education are synonymous to levels of digital literacy. In particular, low levels of education and digital literacy are seen to be mainly from women in the lower income bracket. The reason as to why women are not getting educated would need to be addressed. This is an issue beyond ICTs which requires policies and interventions on understanding and redressing barriers to education. The panacea is not the technology alone but the issues surrounding it.

At the end of the day, political contexts play a role in determining whether a good regulatory framework with relevant public policies and regulation is possible. Secondly, the solutions that are already out there such as equal rating, zero rating, and free public Wi-Fi need to be assessed on their impact of first-time internet users. Apart from that, there is a need to interrogate why some solutions are welcome in one context and challenged in another, for example, the case of Freebasics in India and in Egypt. The ban of free basics was welcome in India but in Egypt, it was seen as a challenge to the right of freedom of expression. Cost of device and data still remain an issue that needs to be tackled to provide connectivity but the social economic context also determines the best approaches to connecting the next billion.

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Overall the discussion of connecting the next billion shows an approach to connectivity from an ICT ecosystem perspective as pointed out by Research ICT Africa. This analyses issues of internet connectivity beyond purely technological and infrastructural dimensions within a broader ecosystem that include global and national governance and regulation, operators, and users. Users are placed at the centre of the ecosystem which would ensure strategies concerned with increasing connectivity relevant to their contexts. Their access to, and the affordability of, the networks, services, applications and content – conceptualised as the broadband ecosystem– determines the degree of their inclusion in the ecosystem; or their exclusion from it (Kim, Kelly and Raja,2010).


Gillwald, A. (2012) “Review of the Department of Communication’s Colloquium on an Integrated National ICT policy”. Available at: https://www.researchictafrica.net/docs/ICT_colloquium_SA.pdf.

Kim, Y., Kelly, T. J. C., and Raja, S. (2010), “Building Broadband: Strategies and Policies for the DevelopingWorld”, World Bank Publications, available at:www.infodev.org/articles/building-broadband-strategies-andpolicies-developing-world.