A guest post by Jonathan Bhalla Research Manager, Africa Research Institute (@AfricaResearch)

On a recent trip to Nairobi, Kenya, I met up with Tonee Ndungu, co-founder of NAiLAB, an incubation laboratory for ICT businesses and start ups. One of the things we discussed in detail was how the internet can be harnessed to have a more ameliorative impact on the lives of ordinary Africans, rather than just acting as a medium for social networking.

We agreed that infrastructure has been a hindrance. Africa has the lowest number of internet users than any other region; with internet penetration at just four percent of the world’s total. Almost half the continents 63 million internet users are in Egypt, Nigeria and Morocco. Going online in Africa is more expensive, and unreliable, than any region in the world. A recent report by the STT Netherlands Study Centre for Technology Trends notes that, before 2009, residents of Nairobi paid up to US$5,000 per month to rent an internet connection equivalent to that of an average European urban household.

Significant progress has been made in recent years. In 2002, sub-Saharan Africa had access to one undersea fibre-optic data cable – the SAT3/SAFE which runs from Spain to South Africa with several landing points along the West African coast. By 2010, the continent had access to seven cables. A further three are scheduled for completion by the end of 2012, by which time Africa can expect 17 terabytes of online capacity.

New and better infrastructure is only part of the solution. Increasing internet penetration won’t automatically mean a greater proportion of people go online, or that the internet will become an increasingly valuable source of information for people to address everyday problems in business to agriculture, healthcare or at home. The rapid growth of internet penetration rates must be matched by concerted efforts to increase local – African – content online.

The majority of Africa’s internet accesses social media sites or adult material. The internet has failed to penetrate much beyond Africa’s urban middle classes, a reality that is hindering its development potential. Education and access are significant barriers. But most importantly, the internet is still not relevant to the majority of people’s lives in Africa. The content on the internet is mostly generated in English-speaking industrialised countries.

The questions that predominantly agrarian populations in Africa ask are not necessarily dissimilar to those an average European or American citizen would ask – but the answers are! Geography, law and culture differ remarkably between regions. The answers exist in Africa. Local knowledge is in abundance. The problem is that this information is not digitalised and readily available online. Unless the dearth of local African knowledge online is addressed, efforts to develop SMS search engines or website translation facilities will have limited impact. The impetus for this must come from both the top and the bottom.

Initiatives are underway. In 2010, Google launched Google Baraza, a community driven question and answer site, as a way of integrating more local knowledge into their search engines. Google Baraza follows a host of other Google products designed specifically for the African continent, including local language search engines, an Africa blog and Google Trader. But Google Baraza and similar products are only likely to have limited impact on localising digital content, largely because they only appeal to Africans who are already online.

More bottom up approaches are needed that tap into the knowledge of people who are not online. Map Kibera uses OpenSteepMap, an open-source online mapping website, to create the first public digital map of Africa’s largest informal settlement, Kibera. It not only records streets and alleyways, but important public goods – including schools, health facilities, religious institutions and water points. Crucially, the map was researched and constructed by local residents with an intimate knowledge of the settlement’s geography. Map Muthare, a project to map another of Nairobi’s large informal settlements is currently underway.

Mocality is Africa’s first business directory accessible through a mobile phone. Over the past year, agents have been scouring Nairobi recording and mapping the city’s small and medium-sized businesses. Each business recorded is allocated a web and mobile page detailing the services they offer, contact details and location. Small businesses in Nairobi are provided with a web presence, and are searchable via Google and the Mocality website.

These are just two examples. Efforts to increase African content on the internet are growing. Kenya’s ICT Board has been trying to encourage local entrepreneurs and businesses to build their web presence through digital content grants. But my point is that more of these initiatives are needed, and fast.

The internet is a public good, but a largely private service. People are required to pay to use the internet. The mere presence of cyber cafes and WAP enabled mobile phones will not entice the vast majority of Africans to go online, unless what they can access is relevant to their everyday lives. Development theorists have long held a lack of information as a principal source of underdevelopment. The source of this information is often far closer to home than many recognise.

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