Thoughts on Internet and The Knowledge Economy in Africa

I came across the idea of a knowledge economy while reading the 2013 Africa Economic Outlook report. I think. Or was it, some other report that spoke of something called the Global Competitive Index (GCI)?

I wrote the following for a then truly awesome online publication the (GMT+3) ran by the ever enterprising, talented and ambitious Melissa Kiguwa and posted it on this very blog, before I messed up and changed hosting platforms without backing up my databases.

Every system must evolve in order to flourish. The world economy is no different. It evolved from an agricultural system to a mineral-intensive industrial one in an era aptly described as the industrial age. From this, it morphed into the so-called post-industrial economy characterized by mass production. The world economy is now becoming a knowledge economy.

A knowledge economy is one in which the basis of production is knowledge (Krsti and Staniši, 2013). Whereas previously it sufficed to have the skills to turn natural resource A into product or service B, we now must do a more complex conversion. We must find innovative and efficient ways of working with resource A.

The paradigm shift to a knowledge economy has been particularly driven by globalization, the internet, and information’s new prime position as the driver of every decision, be it political, business or otherwise (Wikipedia, 2013). As with all economies, the quality of labour spells out success or doom. The post-industrial economy employed manual workers with the skills to produce value but the knowledge economy needs a knowledge worker – one with more than just skill but innovative potential; a worker who is computer literate, inventive, and thinks outside of the box.

General speculation is that Africa will produce the next billion customers. Based on the roughly 1.2 billion population of the continent, most of which is under thirty years of age, and increasing globalization, it is easy to understand why such speculations hold water. Africa is strategically placed, in resources and human numbers, to not only be a consumer but also a producer. However, presently the bulk of the continent’s economy is agricultural; few economies have truly changed into post-industrial economies. We still add little value to what we produce be it diamonds, gold, coffee, or tobacco.

The question is: how can we as a continent realize the knowledge economy?

This kind of economy has four main pillars: education and training to create, share and use knowledge; economic incentive and institutional regime which in lay terms is conducive political and business environments; innovation systems like universities which adapt the knowledge gained to solutions for local needs; and lastly, information infrastructure which would facilitate the distribution of information, and by extension, knowledge – this in the broadest terms means internet. The internet is hence pivotal. It will help us more easily build the pillars needed to build such an economy.

However, only one in three people in the world has access to the internet. In Africa, only sixteen percent of us have access to internet compared to thirty percent in Asia and the Pacific, sixty- one percent in the Americas and seventy- five percent in Europe (International Telecom Union (ITU), 2013).

Across Africa, contributors to the lack of access to the internet range from high costs of internet-enabled devices and equally high costs of connecting to the internet to ignorance of the internet and its benefits.

Although fixed broadband prices have dropped by over eighty percent in the last five years, there has been no significant improvement in mobile broadband penetration nor the speeds offered by service provides. Mobile broadband penetration on the continent is eleven percent, half that in the Asia-Pacific region and much less than the sixty- eight percent penetration in Europe (ITU, 2013).

Moreover, less than ten percent of fixed broadband on the continent offers speeds of at least two megabits per second (2 Mbps), far less than the average ten megabits per second (10 Mbps) offered in Asia. To put this in perspective, let us consider a fifty megabyte (50 MB) video from, say YouTube. It will take you on average five seconds to download this video in Asia while it would take you on average, with the fastest available internet, twenty five seconds to download it in Africa. That is five times slower than in Asia. The difference seems to be small but imagine a two gigabyte movie (2 GB) video or document. It would take 17 minutes to download at 2 Mbps and less than four minutes (3.41 minutes) at 10 Mbps.

Smart phones still cost somewhere just below or in the excess of 100 United States dollars. For a continent that has high poverty levels, on average at least half of the population living on less than two United States Dollars a day (World Bank), the smart phones are a dream. That said, one can still access low end internet devices between twenty and seventy United States Dollars. These, however, are limited in the quality of access to the internet and by extension, internet services they can access. The majority will only allow you email and connect to social media with limited functionality.

In addition, due to low levels of literacy on the continent, to say nothing of computer illiteracy, the benefits of the internet are largely unknown. In fact, even among users of the internet, its usage is predominantly limited to email, YouTube videos, and social networks. Other facets like collaboration, e-business, and cloud computing remain a mystery.

Other factors include low network coverage especially in rural Africa, unavailability of locally relevant material (internet.org), unavailability of content in local languages which would make content more accessible to different communities, poor electricity distribution, and low capacity of networks to handle large volumes of data. In fact, according to the 2012 Global Internet User Survey Summary Report carried out by the Internet Society in twenty countries, users expressed that increasing connection speeds and reliability, affordability and availability of content in local languages would increase usage of the internet.

Mindful of these limitations, a number of initiatives are underway to change the tide. Among these are the Mawingu White Spaces project run by Microsoft together with Indigo Telecom and the Kenyan Government, Google’s Project Loon and internet.org project championed by Facebook together with Nokia, Samsung, Opera, MediaTek, QUALCOMM, Ericsson and other companies.

The Mawingu White Spaces project is delivering “low-cost, high-speed wireless broadband across Kenya” (Microsoft 4Afrika Initiative), especially in rural areas. Mawingu so is so far deployed in three rural areas in Kenya. It utilizes TV White Spaces (TVWS) which are redundant or unused spectrum bands what we previously reserved for television broadcasting. Television broadcasting uses radio waves within a certain frequency range on the spectrum. However, not all that “spectrum” space is used. This is what is called the TV white space.

It is this unused space that the project uses to connect the villages to the internet. To use these for data transmission (internet connection), data signals are sent from one end to another via UHF (Ultra High Frequency) and received on the other end through old fashioned TV antennas. The signals are then converted into a usable form. To communicate back, the data and signals travel in the opposite direction.

Since these are areas not on the national electricity grid, for example a Samburu village, Mawingu is run by a solar electricity; a solar panel is part of the Mawingu setup. Reported connection speed is about sixteen megabits per second (16 Mbps).

Google’s Loon Project aims to provide internet to the rest of the world powered by interconnected balloons floating in the earth’s stratosphere (twenty kilometres above the earth). The balloons move by riding a wind stream in the stratosphere. The stratosphere has layers of wind flowing in every direction although usually West to East. By detecting the direction of the wind, the balloons can switch wind layers and therefore navigate in the direction of that wind. The balloons are manipulated from stations on earth from where they can be, for example, landed for repairs or decommissioning. Internet access through the balloon network is through a special antenna on the ground or building which transmits signals to the balloon network in the stratosphere.

The balloons then beam the signal back to earth to connect to the global internet. Information travels in the reverse order from the global internet to the rural or remote area. The balloons float in such a way that a new balloons takes the position a moving balloon has left. This way, the internet connection is never lost, hence reliability. Google is currently piloting the Loon Project in New Zealand. Results from the pilot will help improve the project and push the deployment of this auspicious network over Africa closer.

The internet.org campaign’s goal is to provide basic access to internet services affordably to the two thirds of the world who are not yet online. In essence, it will provide low cost mobile broadband access. According to the International Telecom Union, ITU, (The World in 2013: ICT Facts and Figures), Africa still has the highest cost for internet access. In order to achieve affordability and maintain economic feasibility, the initiative plans to reduce the cost of acquiring internet-enabled devices as well as the cost of connecting to the internet. There are a number of proposed ways of implementing this.

The first is through improving transmission infrastructure to allow signals to travel faster and further to remote and rural areas. Mobile broadband is only possible through masts that connect to service provider (read telecommunications company) and then to the internet. Improving transmission technology to allow one mast to serve large areas, for example entire counties, reduces the number needed to have everyone connected. In turn this reduces operational costs for the telecommunications company or service provider which will trickle down to the internet users in form of reduced cost for connection.

Secondly, championing low cost open source projects to develop low high-quality cost mobile devices. Through this, the cost barrier for acquiring internet-enabled devices, typically phones, is removed.

In addition to utilizing white space spectrum to increase and supplement connection capacity, improving network capabilities to allows more data to be transmitted more efficiently. Basically, using a water system analogy for the internet connection, what we shall have would be a cheaper and bigger pipe through which to more water can be pumped faster.

To reduce cost of connection to the internet, reducing the amount of data required to access internet services through compression of data and encouraging development of mobile applications that cache data (store data on the phone) so that the user does not have to make multiple connections to the internet for that information in order to use the application. Data compression refers to compacting information to reduce its size. This is not unlike packing so many clothes in a small suitcase and making them fit by compression or clever folding and placing. The resultant suitcase is the same size and would warrant the same luggage fee but it carries a lot more. For the internet user, they are paying literally less for more.

Other plans include localizing services (making services available in local languages, for example, Google search engine and results) and partnerships to particularly mobile operators (telecommunications companies) to mobile services to rural and the remotest of areas. Although the foundation of this plan and such partnerships are fortunately already in play, for instance with mobile operators providing free access to Facebook, Twitter, GMail and Wikipedia, the internet.org plan is untested and therefore its success unpredictable at best.

Mawingu and Loon on the other hand could within five years be helping to change the tide in favour of more internet connectivity in Africa. The use of white spaces with Mawingu ensures low cost for the service provider. The next step in the project is to provide the internet wirelessly through Wi-Fi (Wireless Fidelity) hotspots. When the technology is deployed across the continent, it could quickly replace connections through masts in some areas and with this allow cheaper connectivity. Also, the growth of technologies like this could create competition driving the price of internet further down and the user or customer emerging the greater beneficiary. However, the project risks failure due to bad business environments across Africa, more often than not connecting to political willingness, or lack thereof, and low adoption rate. To deploy such a project, the respective Governments of the countries are inevitably involved and therefore where there is not enough political support, the project risks failure. Africa (its rural market) is not particularly famous for its unquestioning embracing of change or quick adoption of technologies. It could be a while before the market adopts the technology.

Loon could offer very stable internet connectivity through the large balloon network. With the network, balloons orbiting the earth travel in a pattern that ensures coverage all the time as a moving balloon is replaced by another immediately, and with larger numbers still, there could be a possibility of having multiple balloons to connect to at any given time. This creates options so that when balloon X is has for example connected the maximum people it can connect, balloon Y can take on any additional connections. The balloons have been designed to survive and work in the sort of conditions in the stratosphere and run on solar energy and hence unless the sun disappeared suddenly (by which we would also disappear), they are always on. That said, the project faces same political and market adoption risks that could be experienced by the Mawingu project. In addition, the cost associated with this blanket, reliable internet could still be unaffordable to the intended users. I know launching a satellite into space costs a fortune. I assume that although it does not cost as much to launch these balloons, it costs a lot of money. The cost would be naturally pushed downward to the final consumer.

The projects mentioned herein hold exciting possibilities for Africa. Whereas they are bold and hopeful steps toward connecting more people in Africa, we cannot celebrate until the statistics start showing improvements in connectivity. But, as with all epic journeys that rewrite history, they have begun with that first step, in the right direction.

 

Playlist: Random Naija music playlist

Reading: I don’t remember what

 Sources and References:

1. Africa Development Bank (AfDB), OECD Development Centre, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Africa Economic Outlook (AEO) 2013, May 2013. Retrieved from http://www.africaneconomicoutlook.org/en/ and http://www.africaneconomicoutlook.org/fileadmin/uploads/aeo/PDF/Pocket Edition AEO2013-EN.web.pdf

2. Africa Development Bank (AfDB), World Bank and World Economic Forum, Africa Competitiveness Report (ACR) 2013, May 2013. Retrieved from http://www.weforum.org/reports/africa-competitiveness-report-2013 and http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Africa_Competitiveness_Report_2013.pdf

3. Google, Google Loon Project. Retrieved from http://www.google.com/loon/

4. International Telecom Union, ITU (March 2013), The World in 2013: ICT Facts and Figures. Retrieved from http://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Pages/facts/default.aspx

5. Internet.org. Retrieved from http://www.internet.org

6. Internet Society (2012), Global Internet User Survey Summary Report 2012. Retrieved from http://www.internetsociety.org

7. Krsti, B., Staniši, T. (July 2013), The Influence of Knowledge Economy Development on Competitiveness of South-eastern Europe Countries, University of Nis

8. Microsoft 4Afrika Initiative, The White Spaces Project. Retrieved from http://www.microsoft.com/africa/4afrika/white_spaces_project.aspx

9. United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), Economic Report on Africa (ERA) 2013. Retrieved from http://www.uneca.org/publications/economic-report-africa-2013 and http://www.uneca.org/sites/default/files/publications/unera_report_eng_final_web.pdf

10. Wikipedia, Knowledge Economy. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knowledge_economy  

11. World Bank, Poverty and Equity Databank. Retrieved from http://povertydata.worldbank.org/poverty

12. World Bank, The Four Pillars Of The Knowledge Economy. Retrieved from http://go.worldbank.org/5WOSIRFA70

 

 

 

 

 

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