Cheap smartphones are flooding Africa, giving many of its citizens access to the internet for the very first time.
nyone can get into Nigeria’s tech scene, says Chibuzor Obiora. That wasn’t true just a few years ago.
A 29-year-old developer, Obiora began coding in 2014 when he was hired by Andela, a Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative-sponsored tech firm that offers Africans paid training in software development.
Back then, his colleagues were all men around his age and older. But in the past five years, the software development industry in Nigeria has become more mainstream. As young Nigerians figured out they could learn to code and make money relatively quickly, Obiora says, the industry’s average age plummeted and its makeup became diverse.
“It’s not just guys anymore,” he said. “At Andela, I was colleagues with ladies as well, much older women who’d just had kids, married men who’ve had kids, women who wore the hijab.”
Widespread internet access is changing the African continent, largely thanks to the rise in smartphone ownership. Many Africans who are unable to afford costly broadband connections can now access the web for the first time, via sub-$50 Android phones. The rate of adoption continues to surge: A GSMA study predicts Africa will get 300 million new internet users by 2025.
Now the CTO of his own startup, Obiora and all of his old Andela colleagues are riding the rising tech wave.
Africans say there’s much to be hopeful about. Basic internet services tangibly improve quality of life. Something as simple as an app that coaches women giving birth saves lives in countries like Ethiopia, where a vast majority give birth outside of health facilities. Rudimentary internet access can facilitate huge productivity boosts for agriculture workers around the continent; farmers, for instance, save precious time by accessing market prices through their phones instead of a physical trip into town.
But there are some consequences of internet adoption that could temper optimism. Africa is a continent historically beleaguered by authoritarianism, unrest and underdevelopment. The internet isn’t inherently a force for progress or disruption, but instead is a tool that can be used for either of those ends. Some of the internet’s applications are helping to build up Africa, while others are exacerbating the continent’s problems.
Money on my mobile
As a citizen of Nigeria, Obiora is confident in the ability of internet media, both traditional and social, to educate and engage Africans. But he’s also noticed a growing problem.
“There’s a huge online betting market in Nigeria,” he said. “It’s one thing to be able to walk to a shop and buy a ticket. … it’s another thing to access hundreds of betting platforms online.”
Gambling, particularly in the form of sports betting, rankles Africa’s more developed nations. Around 60 million Nigerians aged between 18 and 40 bet daily, according to a poll from the News Agency of Nigeria.
This isn’t a problem unique to Africa. The world’s 10 most gambling-prone populations live in first-world countries. Australians are the world leaders in losing money to gambling, and online sports betting is the fastest-growing sector of the country’s gambling market.
The concern is that most Africans have more to lose than Western gamblers. Half of Nigeria’s population lives below the poverty line, according to the World Bank, and millions of people bet what little money they have in the hopes of earning more. The betting motivation most cited in NAN’s survey was a need to make a quick buck.
There’s a clear correlation between smartphone ownership and online gambling. Kenyans gamble more after buying a smartphone, according to a 2017 study by the Digital Skills Observatory, a Bill and Melinda Gates-funded firm. Over 20 percent of participants bought a smartphone specifically for betting.
Online gambling is aided through internet access and mobile payment platforms, which have boomed in Africa throughout the past decade. Still, this is an area where the pros outweigh the cons.
Mobile payment apps allow Africans to circumvent the continent’s inadequate financial infrastructure. Just 34 percent of Africans had bank accounts in 2014, according to the World Bank. This makes a challenge out of tasks that Westerners take for granted, like paying bills for utilities.
It’s been a life-changer, especially for Africans who don’t live in cities. For the past few years, US companies like Zola Electric and Black Star Energy have begun setting up solar-powered equipment and infrastructure in rural parts of Rwanda, Tanzania, the Ivory Coast and Ghana.
These areas are often without access to either financial institutions or the energy grid. The electricity produced by Zola and Black Star has brought electric lights to villages for the first time, replacing less effective and more dangerous kerosene lamps, enabled in many cases by Africans being able to pay bills remotely via mobile payment platforms
Zola can only operate in rural areas because of mobile platforms, which are a “core part” of the company’s business model, according to Alessandro Pietrobon, the company’s head of data and analytics. Customers who buy Zola products get the added benefit of having a transaction record, which Pietrobon says acts as a proxy to credit rating with banks and other financial institutions.
It sounds like a sales pitch, but it’s backed up by a 2016 study published by MIT. Between 2008 and 2015, M-Pesa, Kenya’s most-used mobile payments app, had lifted 194,000 Kenyan households out of poverty. Accessing a mobile wallet improved the financial literacy of many users, which in turn helped pull them over the poverty line.
Far from just improving lives, mobile payment apps have also saved them. Broken or inefficient financial systems, as well as corrupt or authoritarian governments, often stymie humanitarian aid. Mobile payments offer a solution, as funds can be sent directly to those who need them. Essential Ebola aid workers in Sierra Leone were sustained via mobile payments in 2014. Humanitarian organizations used mobile payments to send money directly to 20,000 Somalian families during a famine in 2011.
Without mobile platforms, Oxfam says, “this aid would not have been possible.”
Rise together, fall together
On April 11, Sudan’s president, Omar Al-Bashir, was ousted in a military coup. Al-Bashir had presided over Sudan for 30 years, during which time he was accused of sponsoring terrorism and facilitating a civilian genocide. Just nine days before his exit, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned. Bouteflika’s authoritarian regime has left Algeria underdeveloped, high in corruption and low in human rights.
Both leaders were toppled following months of mass protests by citizens in their respective countries. Mobile phones played a powerful role, according to Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former US national intelligence officer for Africa.
“Sub-Saharan Africa in 2008 had about 800 protests. In 2018 there were just under 4,000 protests,” he said. Part of that escalation can be chalked up to more phones and internet users “lowering the barriers to organizing.”
To demonstrate how much of a threat phone and internet access poses to authoritarianism, Devermont says you only have to look at how authoritarian governments try to suppress these communications tools.
The governments of both Sudan and Algeria intermittently blocked the internet as public unrest mounted against their respective regimes. (Curiously, Algeria’s government also shut down the internet intermittently in 2018 to prevent students from cheating on high school exams.) Chad’s internet has been blocked by its government since last May. Uganda in 2018 began taxing people for using social media platforms, leading to a precipitous drop in their use.
The most popular Google search by Ugandans last year, Devermont said, was “what is a VPN?”
Mobile phones and the internet can’t create a democracy out of an autocracy, but they can facilitate the necessary first steps. But just as the internet can be used to fuel democracy, it can also be used to disrupt it.
In the US, fake news — information specifically designed to misinform — has mostly found its home on Facebook and Twitter. In many developing nations, Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging app has been the most troubling platform for the spread of misinformation. Like chain mail on steroids, specious information is blasted through WhatsApp by people forwarding “news” to hundreds of contacts at a time, who in turn send it on to their contacts.
Africa’s most infamous example comes from Nigeria. In late 2017, a London-based political activist circulated a story on YouTube that Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari died and had been replaced by a Sudanese lookalike named Jubril. It caught fire on WhatsApp, gaining enough momentum that Buhari himself refuted it in a speech last year.
“I did see that,” Obiora, the Nigeria-based startup CTO, said. “WhatsApp, as usual, was the culprit.”
When people in the West think of fake news, they usually think of divisive politics and spurious reports. Africa certainly has that; from 2016 into 2017, South Africa was roiled by a fake-news campaign that sought to divide the country along racial lines, to distract from then-President Jacob Zuma’s corruption. But there’s another type of misinformation that spreads through Africa that can be even more dangerous.
Many people across Africa get health information forwarded to them from friends and family through WhatsApp, says Kate Wilkinson, the acting deputy chief editor of fact-checking company Africa Check. She says the organization increasingly spends its time debunking false health information.
“We often think of fake news as having political implications and societal implications, which it does,” she said. “But when it comes to health, people die.”
Wilkinson recalls a story of a mother who brought her blind children into a health clinic. The mother had poured battery acid into her children’s’ eyes because she was told it could cure conjunctivitis.
Africa Check, a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-sponsored firm, is fighting fire with fire. The company has set up a WhatsApp line that allows people to forward messages they suspect may be misinformation, which can then be verified or debunked.
“We’ve been completely inundated by people adding us and sending us content,” Wilkinson said. “The response has been enormous.”
The circulation of dangerously inaccurate health information isn’t new. There was a Nigerian movement in the late ’90s and early 2000s urging people to stop vaccinating their children against polio, as such remedies were claimed to be part of a plan for the government to sterilize the country’s women.
A dangerous game
Mobile adoption is just one element of an ascendant Africa. The continent is also experiencing a boom in infrastructure development and, with 320 embassies built in Africa between 2010 and 2016, improved diplomatic relationships with other nations. But increasing prominence on the world stage means having to navigate geopolitical quagmires. African leaders have learned this the hard way.
In 2012, the Chinese government dropped $200 million to fund a new headquarters for the African Union, a bloc of 55 nations, similar to the European Union. China said it was a gift. Five years later, French publication Le Monde revealed the building had been bugged, with confidential data sent to servers in Shanghai every night for half a decade. (This was allegedly done via a backdoor, the same fear the US government has of Huawei’s infrastructure.)
China, along with Russia and the United States, has taken a particular interest in Africa, says Adam Meyers, vice president at Crowdstrike, a Washington-based cybersecurity firm.
“[China is] building stadiums, they’re investing in infrastructure,” Meyers said, “and with that comes Huawei equipment, and with that they built the African Union building in Ethiopia that turned out to be completely compromised with network tapped equipment.
“There’s a lot of geopolitics in Africa going on so I think from a cyber perspective that’s a huge concern,” he added, noting that North Korean hackers have also been increasingly targeting African businesses.
Devermont, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, also has worries about Africa, for its challenges in and out of tech. He’s concerned that authoritarian governments will leverage other Chinese technology, like AI-powered CCTV cameras, to repress citizens. But he says there’s much to be hopeful about.
“I am optimistic about a number of things in Africa,” he said. The entrepreneurial spirit of the continent is “incredible,” he says, and its digital economy is growing impressively. Internet access can also usher in new levels of voter education and help keep governments to account.
Africa’s relationship with the internet isn’t unique. Fake news has been a major problem in the US, where Russian interference and Facebook data affected the 2016 election result. Misinformation has proved deadly in other countries, most notably in India, where WhatsApp-spread rumors have fueled mob violence that has led to the wrongful deaths of over 30 people.
For Africa to get the most out of the internet boom, governments will need to chip in. A more educated, aware public may help mitigate the risks. In Nigeria, Obiora says his government should do more to teach locals about digital literacy, of the power and problems the internet harbors. Then again, he says, Nigeria’s leaders could also use a primer.
“One of the biggest challenges we have is the inability of our government to understand the incredible opportunity and value the tech boom presents.”