Its domain currently ranks 177th in the world, less than half of the country has mobile phone coverage and only 4% of the population are online. But Mali could be set to become one of the world's most popular internet destinations after it became the first African country to give its domain away for free.
Mali announced on Monday that its .ML domain – which is currently used by fewer than 50 active websites – will be free from July, in a move which it hopes will bring much needed outside investment, and give a boost to Malian businesses.
"We are proud to be the first African nation to give domain names for free," says Moussa Dolo, general manager of Mali's Agence des Technologies de l'Information et de la Communication. "By providing free domain names to internet users worldwide, we will put Mali back on the map. We wish to show the rest of the world the fantastic opportunities our country has to offer."
The new scheme is being operated by Freedom Registry, the company which operates a similar .TK system for Tokelau – the tiny cluster of coral atolls in the South Pacific with a population of less than 2 000 – but which is now the most popular domain name in the world, with more active domain name registrations than Russia and China combined.
"If you look at the Tokelau experience, most registrations for .TK are coming from Turkey – whose name corresponds to the letters," said Joost Zuurbier from Freedom Registry.
"And they are coming from many other emerging economies – China, Vietnam, India – they have a real need for domain space because other domains are full. .com is already taken, and if you want .cn you have to show your ID to the Chinese government. That's why people have been using .TK – it's a free alternative, and now .ML will be just as attractive."
Interest in the .ML domain is expected to come from a number of countries, including Manila and Malaysia, attracted by the resemblance between the letters and their own names.
'Good idea on paper'
Mali's attempt to revamp its online presence comes as its economy has been devastated by an ongoing conflict, in which an international military intervention has been battling al-Qaeda-linked insurgents who seized control of the country's north a year ago.
But some questioned whether the move could really make a difference in a country where internet access and disposable incomes remain low.
"I think the .ML domain free registration process is a good idea on paper and could shed positive light on Mali which is sorely needed," said Tim Katlic, founder and editor of oAfrica.com, which tracks internet progress in African countries, and reports that Mali is experiencing steady online growth. "But in reality, I don't think it will pan out as expected, since Mali's internet users aren't ready for content creation – they have limited desktop usage, lack of income to afford web hosting even if domain is free, heavy reliance on international social media sites instead of local ones."
But Freedom Registry said that Mali would also attract extra revenue from the move, with advertising income from domains which lapse split between the company and the Malian authorities.
"Currently we add about 20% to the GDP of Tokelau, and although it is a small country, Mali is much bigger and the potential is huge," said Zubier. "But it's not only about the money – to Mali it's the infrastructure we provide."
"In the past countries needed to invest heavily in equipment to increase their internet traffic, but now it all exists in the cloud – so it's a service that we can provide for them at no charge in Mali. It's a win-win situation where everyone in Mali will get their domain name for free, internationally people can register domains in Mali for free, and Mali doesn't have to invest but can still get a lot of international business." – Guardian News and Media 2013