Mali – The Internet and social media but not as in other African markets

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Francophone Mali is one of Africa’s poorest countries and the recent coup and military conflict in the north have threatened its former stability. Beneath these headlines, the country has continued to develop its telecoms and Internet networks. However, the pattern of development is sufficiently different that it raises questions about how it will change in the future.

There is a clear pattern emerging in Africa’s more well-developed Internet markets. The full cycle is as follows: international wholesale fibre prices go down; some time later retail Internet prices go down; speeds steadily increase with fibre, ADSL and 3G+; the numbers of internet users (largely on mobile) goes up and as this happens Internet content and services begin to start. For example, there are now over 100 VoD platforms in Africa and a similar number of mobile and Internet music platforms.

This is not what is happening in Mali and it should give those of us who are largely optimists about Internet development in Africa pause for thought.

The industry has developed much as elsewhere. About 10 years ago, there were around 20 ISPs and there are now only three. The mobile operators have decimated this sector and grown the number of people using Internet on their mobiles.

The former incumbent telco Sotelma (branded Malitel) was sold by the Government and ended up in the hands of Maroc Telecom. With the recent sale of Maroc Telecom, its ownership will pass to Etisalat. Although owned privately, the company seems entirely with a commercial strategy except lowering voice prices. For example, it had plans to launch a mobile money service three years ago but Mobicash didn't see the light of day until last year. At least three other competitors – Orange Money, Lemonway (in association with BNP Paribas subsidiary BCIM) and Wari – are visible in the market. That said, 15% of its revenues come from data.

Although its only competitor Orange has 10.82 m GSM subscribers compared to Malitel’s 8.92 m subscribers (source regulator AMRTP, latest 2013), the former has probably somewhere between 60-70% of the market by revenues.

A duopoly with a dominant player has had some predictable consequences. As a landlocked country, Mali gets its international bandwidth from Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire. Although wholesale prices have come down, they are still at a significant premium to those found in neighboring coastal countries.

In a pattern that will be familiar to regular readers, it costs only slightly over US$600 to get a meg from Paris to Bamako but over US$1,000 to get a meg from Bamako to the cities of the north. The international leg is at least three times the coastal price and the inland leg is broadly slightly more expensive than some other countries in West Africa.

Obviously, there are physical challenges in a country as large as Mali but these do not completely explain the price differences: there are similar physical challenges in Nigeria. Furthermore, with the country using 2.84 GB in 2013 and presumably more now, you would expect a level of discounting.

The only real explanation is the rather cosy duopoly between the thoroughly beaten Malitel and the dominant player in the market Orange: duopolies of this kind encourage “rent-seeking” rates because there is no competitive pressure. Content with this situation, neither operator seems to have rolled out Wi-Fi hot-spots of the kind widely available in other African cities. Therefore there are not the occasional free Wi-Fi hot-spots found elsewhere.

Because the market is small, neither of the two independent ISPs has a network presence outside the capital Bamako. A third operator, Burkinabe Alfa Telecom was supposed to enter the market but seems to have had problems raising capital. However, there is some discussion of an MVNO entering the market, more of which in a later issue.

Power is an issue everywhere in Africa but is significant backdrop explanation in Mali. With temperatures in the C40s, electricity is not just a “nice-to-have” as one person explained:”When the power goes out, you don’t have air conditioning and you can’t work any more.” Power is expensive and unstable as it comes from the state company but locals are more concerned about power supply than price because there have few other points of comparison.

With the spread of mobile Internet, the number of users has increased considerably as has the number of smartphones. The most popular smartphones  are cheap Android phones with Apple iPhones being used in smaller numbers by the elite. One person estimated smartphones might be as much as 10% of the market, which if true is quite a significant figure. Tablets are much less widely used than this but seem to be growing in number.

Facebook is the most used social media site and has 230,000 users in the country. Twitter is tiny and as one person told us, the number of people on it is so small that users often conduct private conversations on it.

The big surprise is the use of Viber for calling rather than What’s App which is popular in countries like Nigeria. One ISP told us that there was a lot of You Tube traffic and that users tended to spend time downloading films and music and distributing them to friends and family on USB sticks. Both Viber and P2P sites have been blocked at various points but clearly to not much effect.

However, there is not an enormous amount of local content. What there is tends to be local newspaper content that is recycled across several news websites, some of which are local and others come from the diaspora in the USA (like Mali Web). One news site told us it gets 5,000 unique visitors a day. There the inevitable political party web sites. There is a bloggers association but the number of bloggers is small compared to more developed African countries. For reasons that no-one could clearly explain the .ml domain went from a national government agency to a registry in Ireland.

Although 20% of the population are covered by Orange’s HSPA+ network, there does not seem to be a huge amount of local online content and services or start-ups providing it. Perhaps sensing this, Orange did run a Start-Up Weekend with competitors getting a cash prize. It’s clear that things like music and video streaming platforms will be on their road map but they have not yet happened.

There is a local Geek Café, an informal meet-up for those interested in ICT in Mali which has met 3 times at the local co-working space Jokko Labs but the numbers attending have been relatively low. Malian mobile Internet users play games on their phone but there are no game developers or multiplayer game communities as in say, Uganda.

UNICEF is running UReport which encourages citizens to respond to Government and donor activities (like whether food aid is getting through or on the quality of services) and 7,000 people have signed up. There is also a mobile agricultural prices service run partnership with Orange called Sinikila, funded by IICD.

So why has Mali not developed more rapidly in terms of local content? Although data prices have come down, they are still relatively expensive, particularly for students. The bandwidth is much faster than ten years ago but is not particularly stable. When it’s fast, its OK but it often congests as the number of users on the network is now much larger than it was ten years ago.

The country’s economy is small so the number of customers for most start-ups is constrained: there are only 14.5 million people in the whole country.  Any advertising based business model would struggle to gain traction in this relatively constrained market. It’s not the complete picture but it often feels as if Government (and its development agency contributors), the banks and the telcos are the only organisations with any money.

But this is not the whole explanation for why Facebook does not generate more user content. There are probably three other elements: users are still relatively unsophisticated and tend to see Facebook (rather like AOL in the early days of the Internet in Europe) as the whole of the Internet. Since access is often app based, it’s not hard to understand why. So Internet use is widespread but shallow.

Although French is the language of work and aspiration, it’s clear from our conversations that not all have a strong written grasp. Furthermore, broadly speaking the language spoken by half of the population (Bambara) is not a written language: it can and does get used in written form but it is not always easy for users to do so. So there is no easy second language route to accessing the Internet.

And as if these were not barriers enough, there are two other elements that come into play. Francophone countries are generally more secretive about information. The idea of sharing information seems alien. Some of the same traits can be found outside of the francophone countries but not to the same degree. So, as one person told us, finding out who’s actually doing what can present quite a challenge in itself. And the Internet does not actually give much assistance.

This attitude to secrecy is reinforced by Government habits that were presumably passed on by the former French colonial masters. The most basic information is treated as if a state secret and can only be released once every level of the hierarchy has approved. There appears not to be the equivalent of say the Kenyan Government’s very popular online release of exam results.

The danger of all of the above is that the Internet will enter a cul de sac from which it will find it hard to get out. Little or no content will mean the same users circulating the same newspaper articles with comments.

The country has a digital strategy – Mali Numerique 2020 – and it is full of good ideas designed to find ways out of this cul de sac. But you sense from reading it that everyone looks to the Government to makes things happen. And even if there were donor funds, these probably cannot by themselves completely bring about the necessary changes.

The challenge is that there needs to be more competition to bring prices down and locally based music and video streaming services that are not limited in quite the same way by the constraints of literacy. There needs to be far greater Wi-Fi coverage at a reasonable price. Attitudes to circulating information will need to change as information is the grease that makes for successful Internet use. There’s no reason to think that the Internet won’t happen as elsewhere in Africa but current circumstances are not as promising as they should be.
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Digital Content Africa: Balancing Act’s web TV channel Smart Monkey TV has launched a new e-letter called Digital Content Africa. On a fortnightly basis, it will cover online film, music, publishing and services and applications. We have already produced 32 issues and these can be viewed on this link:

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African radio changes wavelength – The rising wave of digital streaming offers new opportunities

Tanzania’s Ubongo broadcasts edutainment to 7-12 year olds using an interactive multimedia strategy with TV, mobile and internet


Everybody knows that the dice are loaded and that the deal is rotten…Operators not opening mobile channel for Africa’s digital content makers

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