The African Internet Effect – Everything it touches turns different

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There’s been a lot of individual pieces of news and a slowly building awareness of the scale of Africa’s Internet users but no-one has yet taken in the breadth of the momentum building up.  Russell Southwood tries to get grips with the pace and variety of what’s happening.

I ran a session on online content at Capacity 2015, the wholesale bandwidth meet-point and conference in Dar es Salaam. I will be charitable and say it was lightly attended but I don’t take it personally. Those doing the business of business are often focused on the short-term in the form of next month or quarter’s sales targets.

Those selling wholesale bandwidth make most of their living from corporates and fixed and mobile telcos. Since neither of the latter are yet making a great hand of selling content and online services, they are in the unfortunate position of being in the back seat of the car, largely unable to influence the journey. But they have a massive wholesale fibre inventory and every day that passes means it has lost value, particularly those selling capacity from international fibre pipes.
Consumer online content and services will be the next big bump in growth for those selling wholesale bandwidth. But with notable exceptions (see at the end of this story) they all seem remarkably passive about making it happen.

The African Internet Effect is rippling out and affecting everything it touches. The first shocks of this earthquake have been quite gentle but its power will build for two reasons.
Firstly, the African “digital change” generation are 18-30 years old. In the next five years as they get older, there will be a new tranche of “digital native” Africans. They will themselves move into positions of power and decision-making.

Secondly, in the more advanced African markets 50% of phone users will have access to a smartphone or a smartphone-like feature phone. In other markets, a significant number of users will have smartphones. Argon Telecom will offer a US$40 smartphone next year and all the talk is of when a US$30 smartphone will arrive.

There are two big clusters which will have an enormous impact over the next five years: film and TV and music. Operators have enormous problems implementing them but let’s look at what’s happened so far:

Film and TV: Online has reduced the barriers to market entry and there are now over 100 online film and TV platforms. Not all of these will survive but some will dig themselves significant niches by focusing on local content. A couple of examples that have had less airplay than others include Ghanaian film-maker Juliet Asante’s Mobilefliks and the soon-to-be launched Tango TV in Tanzania. Much of the talk at Capacity 2015 was about the lack of local content: don’t get me started, local content is either already there or will follow. Nigerian diaspora performer T Boy demonstrates what can be done with a talent for comedy and You Tube 
Safaricom has appointed a broadcast content person to head up its BigBoxTV service and Netflix will soon be in South Africa.

Music: As with VoD platforms, there are now over 100 online music platforms jostling for attention, the larger of which include Simfy, Spinlet and iROKING. Local contender in Tanzania Sune Mushendwa spoke at Capacity 2015 and is one of the more interesting operations. In our report on music platforms we calculated that there were already 10 million users across the continent and that these numbers were set for considerable growth. However, these numbers are soft in that they are not always active users.
One of the biggest barriers to the expansion of these services is payment. This is a combination of mobile operators’ terms of trade, the lack of clear, easy-to-use systems and consumers trust. But that is not to say the numbers are not there:

e-Commerce: Both Jumia and its rival Konga in Nigeria each have 1 million customers. At the moment this is hybrid e-commerce: the customer orders online and pays cash on the doorstep for what he or she has ordered. But that will change….
Media: About the same number or more people read newspapers online than they do the print versions. The qualitative research we did as part of a larger study for the New Venture Fund revealed two key things. When asked what had changed most about media in the last 5 years, those interviewed said there was more media and there was the Internet. Increasingly they checked news throughout the day online. Africa’s online media ranges from the conventional but impressive News24  to the new and much less conventional Battabox

Radio: Radio is Africa’s key medium because TV is not widely accessible. Many mobile users already listen to an inbuilt radio on their mobile phone. The next step? Streamed radio. South Africa’s has already got a million talk radio programme streams in South Africa and will be expanding across Africa soon. Cyprien Josson is a Nigerian in France whose day job is teaching but his passion is Nollywood Radio which already has a significant audience

Livestreaming: With bandwidth Africa is now beginning to build businesses from livestreaming something that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. Graham Wallington’s Wild Earth which streams animals in the wild has gone from strength to strength. Eban Oliver’s Skyroomlive which streams concerts live is just starting out.

Publishing: Conventional wisdom says that Africans don’t read books but Worldreader’s 125,000 active mobile readers offers tantalizing evidence that things may be changing. Kenyan TV writer Ndinda Kioka had her first short story published on an online site before appearing in a print short story collection that led to funding that will allow her to complete her first novel

Art: Nobody ever thinks of art when they talk about online but there are now two online art galleries selling work made by Africans: South African, Ex-Googler Julie Taylor’s Guns and Rain  and Senegalese Valerie Konde’s Pavilion 33

Games: GamersNights in Kampala is a group of multi-player computer gamers who have been helped by Liquid Telecom to expand the reach of their players’ network across East Africa. Wherever I go in Africa, there are small pockets of gamers, most of whom play offline with pirated copies but might be persuaded at the right price by an online service.

Advertising: The shift to digital advertising is well under way as brands begin to realize the important of social media in general and Facebook in particular. This shift has created new business for everyone from the large digital agencies like Quirk, bought by JWT  or smaller, independent agencies like the one set up by Ugandan ex-radio DJ Seanice Kacungira
I’m not arguing that’s all’s well in the African online world so onwards and upwards. Significant problems need to be overcome but this is the end of the beginning.

Even as the telecoms operators struggle to take on board what’s happening, a couple of bandwidth wholesalers have understood it. Liquid Telecom that supported GamersNights in Kampala are mentioned above. The launch of PCCW Global’s in South Africa is mentioned in Internet news below. Others really should join the party.

One sales person from an international fibre company was joking with me that he was suggesting to a customer that they would sell bandwidth on the basis that they got a cut from the songs downloaded. But he was serious about trying to make things happen and more should try it.

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Tanzania’s Tango TV
, one of Africa’s new breed of VoD start-ups looks to establish itself with local content up against international offerings

Africa’s Fragmented Music Biz starts the online journey – Read about your favourite artists, download a track and book a band

Francophone African comedian Mamane goes mobile – the sad story of how mobile companies fail to capitalize on popular content

Integrat’s intarget creates a Pan-African mobile advertising platform reaching 32 countries with everything from SMS to rich multimedia

Videos interviews to watch:

Tanzanian VoD start-up Tango TV founder Victor Joseph on streaming local movies to your TV
Nnenna Nwakanma on Africa's Data Revolution and Open Government for citizens
Daniel Asare-Kyei on how esoko's price information gets Ghanaian farmers more money for their crops
Uche Ariolu on his online food start-up Foodstantly for both meals and bulk purchases
Robin Raskin, Living in Digital Times on 3 emerging personal technologies relevant to Africa
African Entrepreneurship - Why Culture Matters with Rebecca Enonchong and Michael Ike
Katrin Macmillan on an outdoor Internet facility in Nigeria based on Sugata Mitra's ideas's Ryan Dingley on his online audio radio start-up and its pan-African expansion plans
William Bird on using Commotion Wi-Fi mesh software to provide free Internet South African cties
Andrew Rudge, Reach Trust on expanding the mobile reach of its African ed & health service
Joel Macharia on his start-up Abacus that will allow Kenyans to trade shares online