Digital divide in Africa: is it really that big?
More or less consciously, many people still see Africa as one vast totally offline wilderness, half jungle, half desert, but that’s not the whole story. During a discussion about software and hardware costs, Clayton, a software engineer, noted that it would be wrong to think that computer are still off limits for most Africans:
_Things are changing rapidly in Africa. Take Kenya for example where 10 years ago, hardly anyone had a personal computer except the expat population, and a few of the ultra-rich. Now it's only the very poor who are still lagging behind. The fast growing middle class are all buying laptops - or Kenyans living abroad are sending machines home to family there. This is something I have also seen happening in Rwanda and Uganda. The point being... while hardware is relatively expensive in Africa, it's not as harsh as it appears when you only look at the GDP._
I asked Clayton more details, and which evidence he could share about this. Here is what he explained to me.
CLAYTON: Specific documented evidence? Not really. I am going by personal observations over the past 10 or 12 years, from travels made on my own time in East Africa - primarily Kenya, but also Rwanda, Uganda and Ethiopia.
When I first traveled in the region, one of the things on my list of things to do was to check out local computer stores and compare the prices and what was available to local average income. I found that Microsoft Windows, for example, was priced about 3 full months salary (before tax) at the time… possibly more depending on who you used as your example salary earner. I compared to what I’d consider middle class in Nairobi at the time.
The only access to computers for the vast majority was in the various cyber cafes (internet cafes). This is still true to a large degree, but a rapidly growing number of people are now getting their own home computers - especially as prices are dropping so much in Europe, North America etc. For example, several of my friends in Kenya now have laptops at home that are in the 300 to 500 Euro range in Europe.
The computer price drop we are seeing in Europe and North America is happening in Africa too. There is also an increase in overall income for that growing middle class which means an increase in disposable income and they have more money for luxuries like computers. Africa in in general still has a long way to go, but things are happening very quickly there.
The pace of change in Africa is astounding. The Chinese are there developing the road networks and investing in mining. IT infrastructure is growing like crazy - for example, they’ve recently dropped in a fibre Internet trunk from Dubai to Mombasa, up through to Nairobi, and are in the process of continuing that up to Kampala (Uganda) and then down to kigali (Rwanda) (1). Africans, both in Africa, and those abroad, are taking advantage of that increased infrastructure, and the lower costs of computers in general and getting connected.
That said, there are still a huge number of people across Africa living with much less that what you or I would consider even the basic necessities (2). The poor in Africa live on very little, they have very little to spare even for one meal per day. The divide between the poor and the middle and upper class is huge, and getting wider every day. What is very important to note though is that what we see on television about Africa, and the reality on the streets are two very different things.
Africa may have some harsh numbers when it comes to looking at GDP and comparing to Europe or North America, but the billion plus people there are not standing still. The race is on to catch up with the rest of the world, and they will soon pass us if they can keep up the pace. The days of having computers with only 128 or 256 MB RAM are fast becoming a memory across large parts of the continent.
Marco: Thanks to Clayton for sharing his experience. I hope through this page to get as much information as possible on these themes, because the world needs to know much more about Africa’s access to the information society. With all the talks about the role of the Internet in the latest news from Africa, this is very important for everybody, not just for whoever wants to join or support in any way local “ICT for Development” projects.
a few links about Internet access in the region:
There are two sides to every story of course. A few years ago, I spent some time with the residents of M’tangani village, and blogged about it. The links to their website from my blog are dead now, but here’s a bit about M’Tangani and its Health Centre. These people definitely don’t have access to computers in their homes. They have a long way to go to catch up with the Kenyans who are buying laptops and getting internet connected in their home: