The Coming Battle for Africa's Internet

As new technology brings Africans online, everyone from Google to local developers are looking to seize the growing market

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A team of engineers lay fibre optic cables in rural Kenya. Antony Njuguna / Reuters

DAKAR, Senegal -- On a normal week, 30-year-old Salam Fall would be under-slept in West Virginia, juggling the odd hours of a graveyard shift at an IT company with the even odder hours of his moonlight gig, managing an internet start-up based five time zones to the east. But in early February, the Senegalese-American immigrant -- and his green card 9 years in the making -- returned to Senegal to make some changes at Seneweb.com, his website and, in many ways, the unofficial homepage of the nation.

If you're Senegalese or have ever traveled to the West African nation, you've likely come across this site. A buzzing, sensational aggregator of the former French colony's news, it feels and looks like the Huffington Post of Senegal -- except with far less in the way of competition. Deeply influential in Senegalese media and politics, it's where obscure reports of government waywardness go viral. On a happening day, the site fetches 200,000 unique visits and 1.3 million hits -- astounding numbers in a nation of 13 million, less than a million of whom can even get online.

That traffic has traditionally come not from inside Senegal but from all the motley places where West Africans travel for work -- such as Romania, the source of 905 unique Seneweb visits last month. For this region's disparate migrant communities, websites such as Seneweb are an invaluable tool for keeping up with the goings on at home. Accordingly, nearly every country in the neighborhood has its Seneweb: Ghanaweb is probably the most influential, followed by Côte d'Ivoire's Abidjan.net.

But in the past few years, as Fall was pulling night shifts, something fundamental changed for the man who would be Africa's Arianna Huffington.

"At one point, people in the U.S. were the main people who visited," he said. "But now, the majority of visitors are in Senegal. The internet has taken off here."

It will continue to take off, analysts say, as internet access becomes cheaper and more widespread. It's largely just a matter of how quickly it happens and how common it becomes. Less than ten percent of Africa's population has internet access, but Seacom chief executive Brian Herlihy told me he expects that number to grow by half every year "for the foreseeable future."

His company is one of several laying links in what they hope could become as much as 100,000 miles of broadband wiring criss-crossing the world's second-largest continent like the 21st century version of a transcontinental railway. The connections start with undersea cables and extend onshore towards 3G towers within reception range of the continent's growing middle class.

That burgeoning bourgeoisie is Africa's lead variable, and Herlihy ballparks its current mass at 300 million people, each earning between $2,000 and $5,000 yearly -- not always enough to keep a router in the living room lit, but certainly enough to pay off a BlackBerry bill. The service they enjoy, smoother than its American equivalent, runs off towers that are newer and more adaptable to data transfers, which is rendering Africa's telecom transition -- from a continent of voice phones to one of pocket PCs -- more scalable than expected.

"It's just happening faster and faster than anybody could have imagined," Herlihy says.

Plus, that expanded internet access isn't just a symptom of a greater prosperity -- it can also help drive that same middle class growth. The World Bank estimates that every ten percent of a country's population that winds up online powers a percentage point and a half of yearly economic growth.

That growth potential helps explain why the World Bank's offices in Sierra Leone and Liberia, which typically focus on building roads or power plants, have allocated $57 million to support a $300 million project to build a broadband cable reaching out to sea.

Currently, most internet access in Sierra Leone and Liberia is only by satellite, which restricts it to those who are both extremely rich and extremely patient. But the World Bank-funded cable is expected to drop prices to a tenth of where they sit now -- well into what, for example, schools and shopowners could afford.

"We don't believe something like internet access or mobile technology is meant for the well-off," the bank's Sierra Leone manager Vijay Pillai said. "The impact of mobile phones clearly demonstrates that internet is something that can be transformative for the bulk of the population."

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Back in the Senegalese office where Seneweb shuffles the news, Fall believes that the converse is true as well: Africa's population could also be transformative for the internet.

Google -- the company has six offices on the continent, including one in Dakar's colonial district, where it recently held a conference for local developers -- seems intent on developing the market in Africa, where it can deploy many of the same services that arose out of North America's chaotic and competitive first decades on the internet.

The search engine company, seeing plenty of openings in the nascent African web services market, is aiming to fill as many of them as possible. Google offers a Craigslist-style site where Africans can shop used goods -- sheep, pool tables, balafons (a xylophone-like West African instrument), or just about anything else. Last year, Google unfurled Baraza, a question-and-answer forum for Africans, which resembles Yahoo! Answers.

Fall called these "tried and failed methods for Senegalese market."

"I just feel like Google in Senegal, they really don't know what they're after, they just want to be here, waiting and seeing." he said.

Google Spokesperson Julie Taylor told me her company's presence is largely about encouraging local content, but Fall doesn't buy this explanation.

"The web has local content, but local tools -- that it doesn't have," he said, lamenting that many sites are just copies of their Western equivalents, which were designed for a very different part of the world.

"The only thing you have is tools that are built by U.S. and European companies and those tools are definitely not geared towards the African market."

Fall has a few tools in mind -- a phone-based bookkeeping service for shopkeepers, for example, which could do much in a part of the world where every salesman records his turnover in a notebook. He also wants to add a Blogger service to Seneweb and to sidestep Google Ads by soliciting African companies to buy banners on his site.

"I'm expecting them to advertise through us directly," he said. "Most private companies here don't even budget for advertising on the internet. I have to go after them, sit them down, and make a case for this internet thing."

African businesses might be skeptical about the web, but forward-looking tech companies from Seneweb to Google are already planning for how to best serve the continent's billion-plus consumers.

"You look at Africa, Brazil, China, India, and right there you have almost four billion of the world's consumers," Herlihy says. "They're only going to be happy using products designed for Americans for so long."

Photo: Salam Fall at work

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Drew Hinshaw is a reporter based in Dakar. He writes about West Africa. His writing has appeared in Bloomberg News and the Christian Science Monitor.

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