Africa: As Young Africans Push to Be Online, Data Cost Stands in the Way

Johannesburg / Accra — Nearly three-quarters of African youth see universal Wi-Fi as a human right, but sky-high data costs from Ghana to South Africa mean only one in eight can afford to be online all the time, new research shows

  • Sub-Saharan Africa has world’s most expensive data
  • Many youth view internet access as a human right
  • Jobs, education, security on the line, advocates say

Alongside the food, clothing and nappies gifted to a shelter for South African flood victims, one donation proved especially popular – a Wi-Fi router.

The router allowed the students to finish assignments, helped the unemployed find jobs and meant seamstresses could download dress patterns – tasks that had been tricky for many of them previously due to South Africa’s high internet costs.

“Accessing internet is a human right, but it is one we couldn’t afford before,” said Nozipho Sithole, a former care home worker who quit her job to help fellow victims of the devastating floods that hit KwaZulu-Natal province in April.

South Africans pay up to 85 rand ($5.29) per gigabyte (GB) of data, a cost equivalent to nearly four hours work for people earning the minimum wage.

That compares with about $1.53 per gigabyte in North Africa and $2.47 in Western Europe, according to new research by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation charity that highlights, among other topics, sub-Saharan Africa’s sky-high data costs.

The region has the world’s most expensive mobile data prices, according to the Worldwide Mobile Data Pricing 2021 report.

Expensive internet services widen the so-called “digital divide” between the world’s tech and internet haves and have-nots, according to the United Nations, which says about half the global population falls into the latter group.

As young Africans in particular increasingly see internet access as a basic right, the high price of data could become a hot-button issue, said Ivor Ichikowitz, chairman of the Ichikowitz Family Foundation.

A survey, carried out by the charity, compiled interviews with about 4,500 18- to 24-year-olds across the continent, showing that while 71% saw universal Wi-Fi as a fundamental human right, only one in eight could afford coverage at all times.

Flood survivor Nozipho Sithole holds a friends baby in the shelter where they are living since the storms destroyed thousands of homes in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, May 12, 2022.

“If we look through the survey, there are probably four or five things that would bring young Africans out into the streets – and this is one of the top ones,” said Ichikowitz.

“It’s bizarre to think of this, but there’s actually a security risk on the continent, a huge security risk, if this is not addressed,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a video call.

SMARTPHONES AND COST SAVING

From homegrown social media platforms to grassroots internet providers, digital innovations are becoming more common across the continent, but tech entrepreneurs say the cost of data holds them back.

“There are a lot of things we can do here in Africa looking at the penetration of smartphones on the continent, but because of data costs we’re limited,” said Divine Puplampu, a Ghanaian software developer.

Smartphones are used widely on the continent, with 64% of Sub-Saharan Africans owning one in late 2021, a figure expected to grow to 75% by 2025, according to GSMA, an umbrella organization representing mobile operators globally.

But not everyone who has a smartphone will be online, due to the high cost and patchy availability of internet access.

Puplampu estimated that he was spending about 800 Ghanaian cedi ($100) on data each month, and that the cost had risen sharply in recent months.

“That alone is somebody’s salary and higher than the wage of a national service personnel,” Puplampu said.

A combination of poor infrastructure and the control that telecommunication operators have over consumer rates are among the leading causes of Africa’s high data costs, said Ichikowitz.

“So it’s not necessarily in the hands of government unless they change legislation … to compel the telcos to make the investment required to get cost-effective high-speed data into as many hands as possible” he said.

Puplampu suggested policymakers needed to make it worthwhile for the telecommunications companies to cut their prices – for example, by reducing permit fees and allowing them to save money by using government-funded infrastructure.

Tech developer Divine Pumplampu poses from his office with his laptop under his arm in Accra, Ghana. June 11, 2022.

“It will go a long way to improve on internet penetration in the country,” he said, noting that Ghanaians were pushing back against a recent e-levy issued by government to raise revenue on mobile money transactions.

REMOTE WORKING

Making internet more affordable would be a huge boon for African economies, opening up one of the world’s biggest pools of available labour, said Ichikowitz.

“There’s no reason why young Africans can’t be working remotely the same way as young Americans, Brazilians and Europeans are,” he said.

In Kenya, which is dubbed “Silicon Savannah” for its hefty tech sector, 1GB of data is relatively cheaper – costing about 99 Kenyan shillings ($0.85).

But for young Kenyans hoping to break out of poverty into the country’s flourishing tech industry, it is still more than they can afford on top of other essential costs.

Brighton, a 17-year-old student from an informal settlement called Kwangaware in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, finished secondary school in December and now wants to learn coding and become a software developer.

The problem is that by the time he has browsed a few sites to find out where he can learn coding, his data has run out.

“The data is too expensive,” said Brighton, who has taken up a 300-shilling per month job on a construction site while he plans his next step.

Despite such hurdles, he is not giving up hope on a future in tech innovation.

“Everyone says that tech is the best sector to be in for young people,” said Brighton, asking not to give his full name.

“I think I’m good with computers and see a future for myself in technology.”

($1 = 15.8305 rand)

($1 = 7.7000 Ghanian cedi)

($1 = 117.2000 Kenyan shillings)

(Reporting and writing by Kim Harrisberg @KimHarrisberg in Johannesburg, Kent Mensah in Accra and Nita Bhalla in Nairobi; Editing by Helen Popper. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, and covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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