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Free Internet access across Africa

We’ve all heard the stories and wondered whether they were fact or science-fiction. Drones and balloons traveling across Africa, beaming wireless signals down to rural communities to allow them to access the internet for the first time.

For a long time, it seemed as if Google were ahead of Facebook with its balloon-based Project Loon seen as the likely winner in this connection race.

But the recent news of a rumoured partnership between Facebook and UK satellite operator Avanti, as moved the social media giant into pole position.

While not yet confirmed, the partnership would be part of the Internet.org initiative and would see satellites used to provide free internet access to people across the majority of the continent.

But what would this mean in practice? In many parts of the world, the internet and digital communications are now such a fact of lives that it is difficult to imagine how we operated before it came along. So how  lives, economies and politics change if huge swathes of the continent’s citizens are suddenly online and able to access the Web?

The possibilities and potential is enormous.  Every year, the World Wide Web Foundation (founded by the Web’s creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee) releases its Web Index, which “measures the impact of the Web on the world’s people”. The Index tracks a number of indicators, including the social impact of the Web – access to health information and support, education opportunities, even the ability to just connect with friends through social media.

On the health and education fronts, there could be major changes on the horizon in African countries. Greater access to online medical information, and even the chance for remote connections to doctors and nurses, could lead to a huge step forward in the medical sector. There has already been a huge amount done across the continent in the mHealth space (just look at the great work being done by MAMA to provide critical information to new mums or mPedigree’s app to detect counterfeit medicines). With greater access to the internet, local innovators would have much greater ability and reason to develop apps or ideas to address a health issue in their community.

The same could be said for education as well. Along with high-profile projects like One Laptop Per Child, expect to see a huge rise in distance learning and massive online open courses (MOOCs). MOOCs in Africa is something Facebook has taken a particular interest in before. Speaking with Wired last year, Facebook’s head of global policy development highlighted the huge opportunity presented by organisations like Coursera and Khan Academy. The ability to access courses from world-class academic institutions in other African countries or around the world will open up a myriad of education opportunities for rural Africans which might previously have seemed impossible.

But the potential impact of free internet in rural Africa extends far past its potential to transform the lives and opportunities of individuals.  The economic and political impacts could be equally ground-breaking.

Take the oft-cited fact that Africa has one of the fastest-growing consumer bases in the world. The online purchasing power of that growing middle class has already led to the development of local products like Jumia, the African e-commerce hub that operates in nine African countries and recently received USD150 million in new funding (valuing the company at over half a billion). Our 2014 analysis of Twitter use in Africa showed how brands are starting to realise that social media is becoming an important tool to reach consumers around the continent. With more of Africa’s one billion plus able to move their purchasing (personal and professional) and vending online, we could be on the cusp of an e-commerce explosion on the continent.

Or take the potential political power that an individual receives the moment they move online. The Arab Spring proved how social media can be a catalyst for political change and even upheaval,  And you need look no further than recent African elections (like Kenya’s 2013 election) to see how Twitter is becoming an important tool for political campaigning and discussion on the continent. Governments and politicians are becoming increasingly accountable to their people through the power of social media and the Web. So with that in mind, how can we not expect that greater access to information and debate will also have an incalculable impact on how governments in Africa operate?

Regardless of how you approach the question, it is undeniable that greater access to the Internet and Web will have a huge impact on Africa’s population. Individuals will become more informed and empowered. Economies will move online and develop. Governments will become answerable to their citizens.

Whether the rumours of Facebook and Avanti’s partnership turn out to be nothing more than that, it is only a matter of time before groups like Internet.org achieve their dream of getting more of more of the world online. I, personally, cannot wait to see how dramatically the world will change when that dream becomes reality.


This article originally appeared in African Business Review

Written By

Matt Gould