Juliet Ehimuan

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From Farming to Films: How the Web is Changing Africa

December 15, 2022

New technology is helping the continent adapt to the demands of the modern world.

Recently, when a potato disease ravaged Kenya, farmer Zack Matere searched “potato disease” on the internet and discovered that ants were eating his potato stems. On the same website, Matere found that the cure for his potato disease was to sprinkle wood ash on the crop. Two months later, his potatoes were back to shape and Matere knew it was time to invest in the internet. Online, he found a local buyer for his rescued crop. He now uses an internet-enabled phone to get real-time potato prices. All this happened in a region that only five years ago the Economist referred to as the “dark continent” because of its lack of electricity.

Technology started to influence the way Africa develops in a big way with the introduction of GSM services in the late 1990s. A mobile revolution has positioned Africa as the fastest growing region on Earth for the telecoms industry, and with it has come a significant shift – a recognition among African governments and people that an opportunity exists to leap the development gap through the implementation of technological solutions to some of the challenges facing the continent.

For many people in the rest of the world, life without the internet is hard to imagine. In Nigeria, many still remember queuing to use the Nitel (the country’s national operator) phone in the village. In 2001, a sim card cost approximately $100 and local calls cost 33 cents per minute. By 2009, you could buy a sim card for $1.33 (a 98.6% reduction) and calls had reduced to 24 cents per minute. Billions of dollars of investment flooded in and, according to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), active subscriber numbers in Nigeria exceeded 100m lines earlier this year.

This explosion in mobile telephony preceded, and in many ways caused, an explosion in the number of Nigerians using the internet as a tool to communicate and to do business. The GSMA (Groupe Spéciale Mobile Association) has estimated that, in 2009, more than 31 million Nigerians accessed the web, with 30% or more doing so via mobile phones. From free instant messaging services that removed the relatively high cost of sending an SMS to the development of local applications to solve local problems, the internet and its access platforms are at the heart of emerging businesses.

New technology has the power to influence economic development as well as political accountability in numerous ways. As the experience of Zack Matere demonstrates, simple access to information can be fundamental to development. Likewise, in Ethiopia, the launch of a revolutionary new commodities exchange in 2008 was designed to provide real-time information to the country’s smallholder farmers, who constitute 80% of the population and who were generally only aware of the price of their commodities at local markets. An automated toll-free telephone service now provides updated prices by the minute.

Businesses are also beginning to tap into the desire of millions of its consumers to access entertainment online. One of the best examples is in Nigeria, where the stunning success of Real Nolly Movies provides a benchmark for budding technology entrepreneurs across the continent.

Launched as a YouTube channel in March, Real Nolly has the digital distribution rights to hundreds of Nigeria’s hugely popular Nollywood films, making them available to viewers free of charge. Already the channel is receiving millions of views and generating considerable monthly advertising revenues while helping to promote legal distribution of Nigerian content.

Technology is contributing, too, to Africa’s growing presence on the global stage. The Egyptian uprising succeeded in part because the web allowed people to organise inside the country and attract support from outside. The recent deaths of prominent African leaders, such as Malawi head of state Bingu wa Mutharika, Ghanaian president John Atta Mills and, most recently, Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi, made headlines worldwide, and Twitter played a major role in disseminating information about them globally. If technology can help Africa gain a greater share of global news coverage and improve awareness of what is happening on the continent, interest and development will follow.

But we are only standing on the bottom rung of the ladder in terms of the potential new technology offers. Despite a flurry of activity in the development of infrastructure to improve internet connectivity across the continent, bandwidth remains relatively low and distribution is a problem, especially in Nigeria. If we take Real Nolly Movies, for example, a large part of its audience is in the west (among the Nigerian diaspora), where bandwidth is quicker and cheaper. Imagine its potential for growth as internet access and speed continues to improve.

George Bernard Shaw once said: “You see things and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were and I say, ‘Why not?'” This relentless pursuit of the impossible lies at the heart of the internet’s success and is what will drive its growth in Africa. The continent has only recently started to harness the power of technology and is already seeing significant dividends. How it exploits the internet over the coming years will be one of the defining contributions to its long-term development.

The article was originally published in The Guardian UK > Read hereThe feature image was originally posted by The Guardian UK accompanying the article > Kenyan farmer Zack Matere, who discovered the cure for ‘potato disease’ on the internet.


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