Does Africa's rise depend on its investment in internet infrastructure?

Fixed-line internet is a massive driver of growth

Fixed-line internet is a massive driver of growth

‘Africa Rising’ — you’ve heard it, and you’ve probably said it yourself to highlight how our beloved continent is moving forward.

However, the question to ask is: is it really rising? And as importantly, for whom is it rising?

Infrastructure plays a key role for Africa in following through on this slogan. Whether it be roads, electricity, clean water or affordable internet connectivity, infrastructure enables and facilitates the growth of any country’s economy. A recent 2016 research report by ictData.org concluded that fixed-line infrastructure — in other words, fibre optic cables and broadband — has the biggest impact on any country’s economic growth.

Egypt is a good example of how a lack of investment in broadband infrastructure can have a negative impact on a country’s economy. For several years after the Arab Spring in 2010, Egypt endured several years during which its unstable political and economic climate resulted in a lack of investment in fixed-line infrastructure. So bad was the impact of this lost investment that Egypt is now ranked 146 out of 150 countries as far as fixed-line broadband speeds are concerned in a survey by Speedtest.net — a web service that provides free analysis of internet access performance metrics, such as connection data rate and latency (delays in the connection).

Contrast this with the other end of the continent. The South African government and private companies are committing capital and investing in fixed-line broadband infrastructure not only in well-heeled suburbs but also in some of the poorest neighbourhoods, and this is ties back to the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative and the question of for whom it is rising.

It is one thing to boast about world-class infrastructure in middle-to-upper class neighbourhoods, but how are we helping those in poorer communities?

Thus, it was with great interest that I observed and used Wi-Fi this week at the VCafé chesa nyama in Diepsloot, which boasts internet speeds of over 150Mbps, way better than those of the wealthier neighbouring residential estate of Steyn City.

If you compare this with Egypt, which only had a maximum fixed broadband download speed of 4.84 Mbps in 2016, you start to pick-up that there is some relationship between faster and more affordable fixed-line broadband and economic growth.

How are such fast Wi-Fi speeds achieved in the poorer neighbourhood of Diepsloot? Through investment and South African company VAST Networks deploying fibre-optic cables around Diepsloot. This has resulted in 14 fibre-backed Wi-Fi hotspots around Diepsloot — apart from VCafé’s — which not only benefit the residents with various everyday needs now dependent of the internet, but also business owners like the Co-founder of VCafé, Collen Kekana, who says “my customers are thrilled to have access to the internet and are using the platform for various purposes from job applications to news updates to staying in touch via social media. What always puts a smile on my face is when they realise that their internet speeds are actually higher than those available in some of the more affluent suburbs.” he said.

Infrastructure investment like this has a domino effect. For example, Diepsloot Radio, an online radio station, can now have higher numbers of listeners, as there is now a faster and more affordable method of internet access for their listeners than mobile, which in turn likely translates into higher advertising revenues and allows the station to grow and hire more people.

This is just one simple example of how investment in infrastructure can deliver on the promise of the popular slogan.