I was browsing the Global Web Index yesterday, a project from the World Wide Web Foundation. It aims to measure the take-up and use of the web, tracking accessibility and the level of engagement in each country. Sweden comes top, then the US and then Britain, all countries where the internet is thoroughly embedded in our everyday lives.
As an African at heart, I couldn’t help but notice the continent’s near invisibility. Tunisia is Africa’s sole representative in the top half of the index. Of the bottom ten countries, seven of them are in Africa, and most countries don’t have any data to work with in the first place. Only 12% of Africa is online, against a global average of 38%.
There are a whole heap of reasons for this. You can’t use the internet without a source of power, and in Sub-Saharan Africa only a third of the population has electricity. Then you need a computer or a smartphone, which is hugely expensive. You also need the network infrastructure to plug into, and as usual, investment on that front has been slow.
It’s easy for us to forget, but the internet has languages. If you speak English or Chinese, the world is your oyster, but beyond that the internet is a much smaller place. Even a major language like French has a tenth of the web pages that English has. If you speak Malagasy, your internet is tiny, and that virtuous circle of investment and content is very hard to kickstart.
Browsing on through the report, I was struck by another major factor – the cost. Here’s the table in full.
Compare the cost of broadband between Europe and Africa. My broadband is a fraction of my income and highly affordable. In Africa, the monthly cost of broadband is 125% of the average per capita GDP. You could spend everything you earn and still not afford it. Africa is a big continent and some countries have more affordable broadband than others, but even when you re-measure the average to reflect population, it still comes it at just below 70% of GDP per capita.
Direct comparisons are going to be simplistic, but let me put this another way. GDP per capita in Britain is around £22,300. If broadband cost 70% of GDP per capita here, my connection would cost me £15,400 a year. Broadband in Africa is a major luxury, and well beyond the budget of most people.
For those of us in English speaking Western countries, it’s easy to add the internet to the long list of things we take for granted, but we should be aware of the differences across regions. When we say that the internet has changed the world, it’s only actually changed parts of it. The many benefits of the internet for business, learning and democracy aren’t universal.
So let’s be grateful for what we have, and let’s support anything that extends the reach of the internet, whether that’s open source software or projects like Energy for All 2030. And there is good news – just take another look at that table, and see how much broadband cost in Africa in 2008.