SWAZILAND’S INTERNET MARKET: SMALL BUT WITH ENORMOUS POTENTIAL

14 June 2002

Top Story

By African standards, Swaziland (with just over a million people) is a tiny country. However, with 20,000 internet subscribers it has reached a market size that is larger than some of its bigger brothers. Terence Sibiya looks at how the market operates and its future potential.

 

Swaziland Post and Telecommunications Company (SPTC) is the sole provider of telecommunications in the Kingdom of 1 million inhabitants, and has enjoyed a monopoly since its establishment. The first Internet service provider in the country was UUNet in 1992 through a company set up by a former University of Swaziland lecturer. He later relocated his offices to Mbabane and was eventually bought out by Africa Online. Real Image is Africa Online’s main competition and it started operating in 1996 and it now enjoys a reputation for providing the best Internet service in the country.

 

The Internet market in Swaziland is very interesting in that as with so much in this country, the potential is enormous. However, that potential is still not materialising as quickly as it might. Certainly usage is growing reasonably fast, but the level of penetration and the percentage growth are still well below international standards. Although the Government has promised to get more involved role in the future development of internet,in the past it has not played any significant role. This has meant that registration and approval of subscribers, monitoring of usage as well as content have solely been the responsibility of the ISPs and their directors.

 

FOUR ISPs VIE FOR BUSINESS

 

The country’s ISPs fall into two groups: the primary ISPs that operate their own networks and the secondary ISPs that use the networks of others.

 

The primary ISPs are relatively few in number but have extensive influence.

 

They are:

 

  1. Africaonline (www.africaonline.co.sz)

 

  1. Real Image (www.realimage.co.sz)

 

iii. Swazi.Net ­ governed SPTC (www.swazi.net).

 

  1. Posix (www.posix.co.sz)

 

Small secondary ISPs are mushrooming up in the kingdom, and it would seem that most if not all of them are being powered by Swazi.Net, one such ISP is Lusango.net based at Dhlanubeka Building in Mbabane.

 

Charges for both the monthly subscription and ongoing usage are high by international standards. And these charges are based on the amounts charged for bandwidth by international providers.

 

The country has about 20,000 subscribed internet users. This is a small fraction of the country’s population, and even though most organisations now have Internet access at work, the individual user still struggles to have access during and after working hours. The key inhibitors discouraging the use of the Internet include a low level of disposable income.

 

COMPETITIVE PRICING BUT FEW CYBER CAFES

 

Despite the small number of ISPs there is competitive pricing and innovative marketing. A typical dial-up account costs the equivalent of R165 for the monthly fee unlimited 30 day period of usage.

 

There has been a mushrooming of cyber cafes nationwide. The largest internet café at the moment is situated at the busiest shopping centre in the country the Mbabane Mall. They have also a branch in Manzini the second largest city in the country and this one, too is situated amain shopping complex in that city. Both cafés are powered by Real Image. Swazi.net has three café’s two situated in Manzini and one in Mbabane at their Post Office premises. Africa Online has one internet café situated in Mbabane. There are other internet cafes mushrooming around Manzini and Mbabane one chances upon them in the most unexpected places, and these are certainly increasing the competition. But it is the Major ISPs; Swazi.net, Real Image, And Africaonline, that have more or less set the standard fee charged in these cafes.

 

The casual browser for instance pays R10.00 for half an hour of internet access. However those who communicate on a regular basis with friends and family have no qualms with paying a monthly fee. These range from R60 ­ R80 depending on the time being bought to utilise on the net. This is a prepaid service. One pays E60.00 for a month and receives 12 hours that can be used in a 30 day period. Should the hours prove to be insufficient to the subscriber, a pro rata fee is charged for the remainder of the month. Emphasis though is placed on the fact that hours not utilised in the said month, will be forfeited on the first day of the new month.

 

MARKET SEGMENTATION

 

In the present Cafe’s regular customers can be divided into two groups. The first group is familiar with the Internet and desires a progressive and inviting atmosphere where they can get out of their offices or homes and use the Internet. The second group is not familiar with the Internet, yet, and is just waiting for the right opportunity to enter the online community. Majority in fact are totally unfamiliar with what the Internet is, let alone knowing their basic way around a PC. The target market falls anywhere between the ages of 12 and 40. The younger generation being mostly dominated by International tourists, foreign residents and the international students from Waterford, and International High School with a significant international student population.

 

There is an interesting public-private initiative called the Computer Education Trust. In Swaziland 98% of students currently graduate from the national school system without ever having seen or touched a computer in the classroom. This occurs in an economy where basic computer literacy is a prerequisite for all clerical, office-based, and professional employment and in a labour market where there is an acute skills shortage in this area.

 

The average number of computers is less than one per school and where one is available it is generally used for administrative rather than educational purposes. Teachers are not currently trained in the use of computers in education. IT is not on the school curriculum. There is no computer hardware or maintenance training available in any of the state colleges of further and higher education including the national College of Technology and the University of Swaziland.

 

A proven level of IT skills is just as important on the CV of any job or university applicant in Swaziland just as it is anywhere. However in Swaziland it is only possible to acquire these skills at evening classes in private fee paying colleges in urban centres. This acts to reinforce inequality across income groups, gender and the rural-urban divides.

 

The economy is suffering a skills shortage in the area of IT skills ­ further limiting Swaziland’s ability to compete effectively in an increasingly global information economy. There are many jobs vacancies for the technically qualified but there exists a shortage of computer literate applicants. In the absence of computer education on the national curriculum of state schools expensive private IT colleges are the only source of these skills - but at a price far beyond the pockets of most Swazi parents. This reality means that currently the majority of Swaziland’s population have no hope of attaining even basic computer literacy levels and therefore remain marginalised - locked out of medium to high income employment.

 

The Swaziland Computer Education Trust (CET) was set up 1999 in Mbabane with funding from private business sources within Swaziland to address the poverty of technical education across the country’s state school system. CET is a non-profit organisation legally registered in Swaziland. The organisation’s objective is to extend computer literacy and vocational IT training to every child in secondary and high school education in Swaziland. The computers are intended for use across the whole school curriculum with the aim of future internet integration in education.

 

CET facilitates the development of the necessary pedagogical materials and the delivery of professional pre-service and in-service training (INSET) for all Swaziland teachers. CET will install a 20 PC computer lab in each of the 187 secondary and high school across Swaziland and guarantee their sustainable use through the provision of full technical and maintenance back-up support facilities.

 

CET is already directly providing teacher training in IT and is currently negotiating with the Ministry of Education to integrate this provision within the existing programme of pre-service and in-service teacher training. CET has already installed 20 computers in 40 schools and is providing effective maintenance and technical support.

 

Teachers are given an introductory course in IT trouble-shooting and comprehensive training in the use of computers in education specifically tailored for the Swaziland education system. Negotiations have begun, and agreement in principle reached, with the University of Swaziland (UNISWA) and the Swaziland College of Technology (SCOT) to incorporate these technical functions within the framework of the curriculum of their existing computer maintenance courses and work experience placements. This will replicate the successful South African model where diploma and degree students are afforded the opportunity to develop applied skills in computer installation and maintenance whilst actually establishing the capacity to deliver computer education in schools i.e. they will actually install PCs in schools and provide technical back-up as part of their studies.

 

Swaziland has great potential for internet usage but wider usage will depend on increasing national levels of computer literacy.