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Ordinary Africans build digital footprint during Covid-19

Despite disruption in the African telecommunications environment, ELEANOR POTTER sees transformation and growth

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Photo by Ono Kosuki from Pexels

General assessments of the impact of technology on inclusion and growth in Africa tend to consider the broad, higher level, trends recorded by governments or major businesses operating in the region. At grass roots level, however, the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdowns that governments attempted to impose across the continent did more in a few months to increase broad-based economic inclusion than in the previous several years.

2020 has seen a spike in demand for Wi-Fi, internet and mobile connectivity from schools, clinics, small businesses, farmers and individual households across Africa. Significantly, this has been paralleled by an equally large increase in furniture sales as well as sales of printers and other office equipment as Covid-19 lockdowns saw ever more Africans begin working – online – from home.

The fact that the increased data consumption patterns observed during lockdown are continuing after lockdown also indicates that as restrictions are lifted, Africans are continuing to operate digitally as new work patterns and increased use of data become the new norm.

While the numbers are not yet available, it will be interesting to see how all this new connectivity, increasingly at the fingertips of ordinary Africans, will translate into broader economic inclusion or even greater levels of economic growth over the coming years.

Since connectivity costs remain comparatively high in Africa, especially when considered as a percentage of overall income, Africans have been very innovative in deploying connectivity to pay for itself. For example, families purchasing connectivity packages will pay for this by combining and sharing use with two or three other families. They will also generally use data for a home-based business as well, or sub-charge neighbours for time-costed access.

Similarly, spaza shops purchase packages to diversify their product offering and revenue streams, effectively selling Wi-Fi connectivity along with a Coke. Schools use connectivity to save administrators and teachers the cost of travelling for hard copy curriculum material. Connectivity also allows schools to broaden access to content. This enables especially small, community-based private schools, to increase their access to streamed learning — sourced from anywhere in the world. The proliferation of small, low-fee private schools across the continent show that Africans are prepared to pay for this.

Clinics also see the value in paying for connectivity if it decreases administration costs and provides remote access to doctors, professional diagnoses and online access to medication and delivery. While the insight, pricing and market access implications of connectivity for small farmers are profound, in just one example, game farmers in South Africa can now auction their game allotments to hunters around the world online.

No longer having to pay agents to get on planes and fly to auctions around the United States, for instance, is driving huge savings, far greater client access and improved pricings in this somewhat controversial agricultural sector.

In these and countless other small ways, ordinary Africans are leveraging connectivity not only to make their lives easier, more fun-filled and increasingly connected, but also to generate new revenue streams. The collective impact of the hundreds of thousands of new revenue streams evolved during the Covid-19 lockdown across Africa is economically significant in its own right. When, however, it is considered that most of these revenue streams are, today, in the hands of ordinary citizens across Africa the implications for growth and inclusion at grass roots level is even more profound.

In a continent that has always struggled to enable broad economic inclusion due to lack of physical infrastructure and state capacity, the connectivity to leap-frog ordinary Africans into direct inclusion in global economic value chains is finally here.

It is particularly interesting that it took government responses designed to reduce contact during a global pandemic to initiate the connectivity and inclusion that has eluded the continent for so long.  

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