Growing Africa’s Internet use: Top down vs bottom up - Which way is up?

Top Story

The Internet is the basis of Africa’s second wave of investment after mobile. It’s much smaller but the potential is considerable. Almost everyone wants to see the Internet grow but there are significantly different strategies when it comes to making it happen. The private sector is seeking to find the magic services and applications that will generate both users and money. Governments and their donor supporters look to provide improved services and efficiencies in their processes. Russell Southwood looks at the contrasts between top down vs bottom up strategies for the African Internet.

Bottom up private sector strategies rely on creating products and services that people want and working out how to make money from them. M-money services like M-Pesa and the many subsequent copies tapped into a need and filled it. (As it happens, M-Pesa is one of those rare examples of a donor funding for a game-changing, mass market service.) The question now is how the private sector can encourage and widen Internet use so that all the many Gigabytes they have invested in will actually be used.

The top-down Government approach is to use what is generally donor money to create online versions of Government services that will make the life of citizens a great deal easier. Part of that is an emphasis on ensuring that all administrative districts are online. The hoped-for impact of all this online presence is an increase in the speed and efficiencies of Government processes. For example, this issue contains a story on computerising customer processes for importers and exporters.

In truth, the choice is not between bottom-up and top-down: it’s possible to do both things at once. But it’s helpful to compare the two approaches to see what the contrasts tell us about the likely success and limitations of each.

The bottom-up approach relies on people going online to do things that they want. When going online in Africa was like sucking a thick milkshake through a straw, this largely consisted of e-mail, finding dates and jobs and opportunities. But life is changing rapidly in some African countries.

According to Dennis Gikunda, Programme Manager, Google:” Using the Internet (in Kenya) is no longer about setting up an e-mail account. You either go to a social network or you use your website. Self-expression has become a form of entertainment where the audience is the medium.”

Facebook has really taken off because in many ways it’s the online equivalent of multiple mobile phone calls without having to answer all those phones. It has become the connecting, “soft” glue that has given new momentum to Internet use in Kenya. A recent survey of Pasha Centres (new version telecentres in remote locations) found that 33% of respondents were using Facebook.

Once Internet users get over a certain number, other people need to go online in order to join this growing community as networking effects kick in. The key demographic is 18-30 year olds and as this age group gets older, the online habits of youth will be more widely distributed in Africa’s next power generation. On the basis of a reliable national sample in Kenya, 5% use the Internet daily (out of 36 million). But this penetration of use is unevenly distributed. According to Daude Were, Africhange:”If you’re aiming content at business managers aged 30-50, Internet penetration is probably 90%. The same is probably true for journalists”. Another vector of this uneven development is Kenya Airways have a Facebook site and a Twitter account.

With greater use levels, advertising is beginning to become more commonplace on well-used websites. Ghana Web has 35 million page views per month (with 40% from Ghana) and its mobile site attracts 3-4 million views per month. Rob Bellaart claims with some justification that:”It’s an important medium in Ghana. It’s one of the few sites offering Ghanaian content that is consistently updated daily”. Its main competitors are Myjoyonline, Peace FM and Modern Ghana:”After that, there are lots of sites but not a whole lot of traffic.”

“We have arrangements with top ad selling networks who sell the space. We sell our own advertising to Ghanaian companies. The site is quite well known if a company is considering advertising on the Internet. We’re usually first on their hot list. We see advertising agencies allocating budgets, companies like Western Union, airlines, telcos and specialist ad networks for diaspora. The product allows small companies to reach Ghanaians in the diaspora. Budgets are still low. I used to advertise myself in the local media and the amount charged by newspapers is very high”.

Home in Kenya has recently re-launched its site, doubling traffic from 1.4 million hits in April 2010 to 2.9 million hits in June 2010. According to, it is Kenya’s third most used website. It offers Kenyan news headlines, weather updates, blogs and more than 1,000 properties for sale and rent, hotel and home let listings as well as features on health, beauty, restaurants, sports and lifestyle. According to Petra Somen, Portal Manager, AccessKenya Group:“You learn, you interact, you have fun, you find jobs and entertainment information and on goes the list.”

Old media has begun to feed new media. Ghetto Radio in Kenya which has a proportion of its listeners in the informal settlements has 11,100 Facebook fans. The station does not take phone calls but uses Facebook intensively to interact with its audiences. According to Were:” It gets comments from people in western Kenya who don’t listen to the show but pick up on the Facebook comments”. Nation TV in Kenya gets 5 million views on its You Tube channel: of course, you can discount for the diaspora share of those views but there’s still several million Kenyans using the service.

By contrast, although necessary, top-down Government initiatives seem more tentative and less immediate: it’s all more push than pull. There are very few cases of public sector initiatives yet driving Internet use in quite the same way as the things described above. The Kenya National Exams Council makes exam results available online and many of the some 650,000 students who take exams annually check their results online but this is not a service with daily users.

Policy-makers are fluent in mouthing e-this, e-that and e-the other but have not been notably successful in creating online services that might be used on a daily basis. A number of multinationals encourage this kind of rhetoric amongst their Government clients but seem to leave their business brain at the door when seeking to elaborate or implement these kinds of services. There have been few successes and almost no discussion of what went wrong with a view to doing it differently in the future. The confidential reports of failure circulate like samizdats but the public assessments are in main anodyne in the extreme.

However, it’s fair to say that the ability to pay utility bills online in some countries has significantly changed the lives of those who can do it. Donor funded projects have tended to be pilots and these have struggled to both understand what motivates users and to gain critical mass. By contrast, using Facebook does not seem to need capacity-building workshops for rural youth in Kenya.

Whereas ten years ago, computers in ministries were once described to me as “coat hangers”, their use in the more fast-lane African countries has moved out of the Ministries to regional offices and may yet make the move down to district level. But allowing civil servants access to the Internet and to communicate outside of rigidly, hierarchical management structures still seems too threatening. All too often it’s easier to communicate by post which takes weeks to arrive rather than through a more speedy e-mail: ossified civil service procedures make change hard to achieve.

But for many countries, if you visit different parts of Government, you sense that computers are still either marginal or the enthusiasm of particular individuals. The personal drive to use the Internet found amongst 18-30 year olds has little practical outlet in institutions run by “yesterday’s generation”: these people still have their secretaries open and print out their e-mails. The several Nigerian soft loan schemes for civil servants seem to provide the kind of incentive that might encourage a change: it’s individually driven and rewards changed behaviour.

An interesting top-down approach has been the US Government’s insistence that all visa applications are made online. This undoubtedly drives awareness and use however, not so long ago we carried out story about touts outside the US Embassy in Nigeria offering their services to help people through the process.

But whilst those African countries that have 60-80% literacy can probably largely rely on the market to ramp up Internet use, countries like Chad that have only 26% literacy are in a completely different situation. For understandable reasons, donors and Governments want to devise ways to deliver benefits to the largely rural poor.

And faced with low levels of literacy, computers in classrooms (like One Lap Top Per Child) would seem to be a good answer. The problem is that in the places where the rural poor live, there are only tiny numbers of educated people capable of making this a reality and precious few computer engineers when things breakdown or don’t work.

As an aside, I once spoke to an African responsible for implementing e-schools projects in a significant number of African countries and asked him whether he believed the Ministry of Education were capable of implementing these projects. After driving the issue around for a while, he laughed and said he did not. But donors feel the need to go through Ministries as they represent Governments and (some) Governments represent the people. Maybe there needs to be a recognition that Government needs a little competition in implementation and that new agencies with the right competences might offer that form of competition?

In terms of rural areas, it almost makes you feel that it would be wiser to focus on the relatively small, urban middle class in those countries before attempting the near-impossible in remote areas. Better information among the elite that is somewhat more widely distributed than usual might just light the blue touch-paper for more significant changes, including attracting international investment and growing a steadily widening of the circle of those who are literate.

Nothing solves everything but small changes drive larger changes: anecdotally, the need for certain kinds of simple texting seems to have had some impact on certain kinds of functional literacy. The challenge for those wanting to provide top-down services is to find the bottom-up private sector instinct for things that people actually want.