Digital invaded Africa. Can it really benefit many people or is it merely limited to being a “new colony” for technology companies?
Amid pressure to take a comprehensive policy on political advertising, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey actually made a horrendous news: he planned to move and settle in Africa for six months in 2020. The decision was quoted by The Guardian (11/29/2019) ), taken after he spent a month on the continent.
“It’s sad to leave the continent (Africa) for now. Africa will determine the future (especially bitcoin!), “Dorsey said through his Twitter account. “Not sure where yet, but I will stay here for 3-6 months in mid 2020. Thank God I can experience a little experience here.”
Dorsey’s one-month trip in Africa began on 8 November. He visited several countries such as Ghana, Ethiopia, South Africa and Nigeria. The agenda is mostly filled with meetings with people from local startup companies.
Following Zuckerberg and Pichai
Dorsey is not the first technology company official to travel to Africa. Three years ago, Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, first set foot on the continent. Zuckerberg, as reported by Forbes, traveled to Kenya and Nigeria.
“Just landed in Nairobi! “I’m here to meet with entrepreneurs and developers, as well as to learn about mobile money where Kenya is [one of] the world leaders,” he told 78 million followers on Facebook.
In Nairobi, Zuckerberg visited iHub, a center of innovation and technology that is popular in Africa. There, he met representatives of startup companies from Twiga Foods (a supplier of fruits and vegetables), Mookh (digital payments), and Vivo Active Wear (online women’s clothing business). Besides stopping by iHub, Zuckerberg also stopped by the BRCK office, a company that provides internet connectivity for education services in Kenya.
While Zuckerberg’s agenda in Nigeria is not much different from what he did in Kenya. He met a number of businessmen and said words of praise: mentioning that Lagos – the capital of Nigeria – could be the future of a new world.
Zuckerberg’s visit cannot be separated from the fact that Facebook has a large user base in the two countries. In Kenya, at that time, there were around 5.3 million users. Then in Nigeria, 16 million people use Facebook.
A similar step was taken by Google CEO, Sundar Pichai. Five months ago, Pichai came to Africa, precisely in Nigeria. Quoting Quartz, Pichai’s presence in Lagos is intended to attend the inauguration of YouTube Go, a brand-new product from YouTube that allows users to download videos without having to incur a lot of data costs.
Pichai’s direct visit to Nigeria, again, was motivated by market factors. Because the production of video content in Nigeria is growing with the presence, one of which, the Nollywood film industry. However, this growth was hampered by slow and expensive internet access.
In order to overcome the chaos, Google came to bring YouTube Go service that offers hospitality internet data usage.
Dorsey’s visit – as well as his plans to settle in Africa – can be read as a strategy to expand Twitter’s market reach. This looks reasonable considering that in Africa, Twitter users – until November 2019 – only around 6.67 percent. Twitter sits at number four on social media that is often used by Africans, under Pinterest (8.32 percent), YouTube (15.95 percent), and Facebook (63.73 percent).
The internet market in Africa is indeed so tantalizing. It is estimated that, by 2020, there will be more than 700 million smartphone connections – double the North American projections. This statistic is in line with the estimated cellular data traffic that will increase 15 times in the same year.
Because of the importance of the internet, the World Bank launched an initiative in the form of a Digital Economy for Africa (DE4A). The aim of DE4A is to improve connectivity throughout Africa in the hope of building a dynamic entrepreneurial climate and qualified digital literacy.
The report compiled by McKinsey entitled “Lions Go Digital: The Internet’s Transformative Potential in Africa” (2013) states that the contribution of the internet to GDP growth (iGDP) in Africa is still low, around 1.1 percent. Even so, that number has great potential to be increased, seeing the internet penetration in Africa is starting to massive.
McKinsey’s calculations show that by 2025, Africa’s iGDP will advance at least 5 to 6 percent — matching the economic achievements of leading countries such as Sweden, Taiwan and the United Kingdom. When maximized again, the projection will jump to 10 percent — equivalent to $ 300 billion of total GDP.
In this scenario, increased penetration and internet usage can also drive private consumption to be 13 times higher than it is now. Demographic trends – urbanization, technological literacy among young people, and rising incomes – are considered to be the main factors.
The biggest impact of the internet, still referring to the McKinsey report, is likely to be concentrated in six sectors: financial services, education, health, retail, agriculture, and government. Increased productivity, the impact of using technology, in these sectors could touch $ 148 to $ 318 billion by 2025.
The role of governments in African countries in processing the potential that exists on the internet is crucial. If the government is able to implement this strategic plan, such as by migrating online, then spending on the public sector will certainly increase sharply by 2025.
At the same time, private sector investment is also likely to surge significantly as telecommunications operators continue to build networks and more companies are beginning to digitize their operations.
That potential is what is then kissed by global technology companies. From Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, to Huawei competing to invest in Africa. They believe that Africa is able to play an important role (read: market) in the development of the digital world in the future.
The existence of these giants automatically encourage stretching digital activity in Africa. In Nairobi, for example, a technology center called “Silicon Savannah” was born, with hundreds of startups operating in various lines. Then in Lagos, Nigeria, there is “Yabacon Valley” and in Cameroon appears “Silicon Mountain.”
The startups became one of the lines that had a positive impact from technology and digital investments in Africa. In 2018, the funds received by startups have almost quadrupled compared to previous years. In total, they raised $ 725.6 million from 458 deals.
Another line affected by this positive overflow is agriculture. The fast internet penetration, as reported by The Telegraph (2019), has made the agricultural sector in Africa change towards digital direction. Hundreds of companies have sprung up offering the use of digital technology in driving agriculture forward.
In short, only with a device, farmers can order seeds and fertilizers to obtain information about the weather, commodity prices, and soil structure analysis.
The Idea of New Colonialism?
Even though the calculations above seem hard to convince, the development of digital technology in Africa still has serious obstacles. A report written by Mark Rice-Oxley and Zoe Flood for The Guardian entitled “Can the Internet Reboot Africa?” (2016) explains that poor infrastructure is a problem that never gets a solution.
What is striking is the fact that internet connectivity in Africa is uneven in all regions, especially those located in the interior. Access to it is still difficult to reach. And when you want to overcome this situation, the cost involved is also not small.
This is worsened by the lack of availability of electricity supply, which has become a scourge for many countries. In one area of Rwanda, for example, only 25 percent of families are connected to electricity. Another problem is the high cost of internet data, even though the average price of a smartphone can drop below $ 100.
However, what is no less important than the case of infrastructure is the nature of digital expansion itself. David Pilling, in his report entitled “Are Tech Companies Africa’s New Colonialists?” Published by the Financial Times (2019), raised interesting questions.
Pilling said that the technological revolution did bring great benefits to countries in Africa. But what would happen if, instead of freeing African countries from the shackles of setbacks, the presence of technology companies would instead be transformed like a colonialist who restrains and controls all aspects of life?
Pilling anxiety departs from the results of the study – released in 2018 – which mentions that almost 90 percent of new technology companies in East Africa are foreign owned. They only use African identity as a marketing tool, while in practice it remains as greedy as the nature of capitalism.
The picture found its best example through Jumia, a popular e-commerce company in Africa. On this continent, Jumia is often referred to as the “Amazon of Africa.” Operating in 14 countries, from Nigeria, Egypt, Ivory Coast, to Kenya, Jumia has attracted users in quite large numbers.
Supported by qualified online technology and strategic offline infrastructure, Jumia offers consumers in Africa to get the desired item without bothering to come to the store. Consumers can order anything, from iPhones, LED televisions, to chicken dates, only through a device. One click, you’re fine with it. Jumia is considered by many to be the right narrative in describing the needs of African society for practical, effective and efficient technology.
But, the problem is, Jumia is considered not to fully represent Africa, even though their working area is on the African continent. This assumption can come out because Jumia itself was founded in Berlin, Germany in 2012. The officials were not filled with Africans, but mostly from France. Not to mention their headquarters in Dubai.
Such a view was immediately denied by one of their top officials, Sacha Poignonnec – a French citizen. He stated that Jumia was “truly an African company.”
The public argument that called Jumia “not an African company” grew stronger when last April they took the floor on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). That is, the company will go global because anyone – where it comes from and whether it is African or not – can buy shares in Jumia.
The Jumia case, inevitably, leaves similar prejudices to big techs like Google, Facebook, and Twitter as they rush to invest in Africa. They are feared to come only to wipe out the economic potential, knock down the existing business climate, and destroy every startup before having the opportunity to develop.
Africa, according to Global Justice Now, a British NGO that focuses on the issue of justice for global development, is seen as very vulnerable to such practices of colonialism. The lack of investment for decades coupled with the lack of adequate legal instruments left countries in Africa with little choice but to accept the conditions – such as data exploitation and user privacy – set by big tech.
“Technology companies love to project a modern and progressive image into the world. But, beneath the surface, companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Uber are pursuing an agenda that can give them a great level of control – and dangerous at the same time – over our lives, as well as severely damaging economic development in the south, “explained Global Justice Now, as reported by The Guardian (5/19/2018).
The pattern of digital development in Africa, which is being campaigned for big tech, is like two sides of a coin. One side shows how many benefits will be obtained from these activities. While on the other hand, digital development in Africa has the opportunity to look like the practice of colonialism in which the big tech utilizes unbalanced power relations and the strong psychological conditions of African people who assume “they don’t have the capacity to do anything.”