Provision of free internet access in African could unlock massive business potential that can overshadow the US, Europe and Asia. By Phehello Mofokeng, director of Geko Labs, a Johannesburg-based ERP integration and implementation firm.
There is no doubt that entrepreneurs could drive the South African economy forward and create much-needed jobs, especially if they have access to cheap or free data.
However, most of these entrepreneurs or small medium enterprises (or SMEs) don’t have access to even basic internet. This also applies to the rest of the continent.
Nonetheless, a few SMEs are thriving and contributing to economic growth and combating poverty through job creation. But still a number of SMEs are curtailed from growing their business due to lack of access to the internet and high-speed broadband.
Its high time internet access in Africa was considered as a basic human right in the same way as electricity and water.
Africa’s entrepreneurial spirit can only be unlocked by access to cheap or free data.
The world of technology through access to the internet promises many benefits including linking up with other same-minded businesses, new trade routes, even new forms of trade.
Countries such as Kenya and Rwanda continuously show that Africa – if given equal access to the internet – can pioneer not just known business frontiers, but we can even open new ones.
Connectivity is the backbone of developing economies. In fact, it is connectivity – free, unlimited and always accessible – that makes Asia far more advanced than Africa.
With unfettered access to the net, a young sneaker maker in Soweto can link with a hip hop mogul in the United States and a new trade market can open.
This could be facilitated by free internet calls, Skype, Messenger, FaceTime and others. A young fashionista in Alexandra who has always wanted to import clothes from China can do this at the push of a “Pay Now” button and a few days later, her stock could be arriving at OR Tambo International Airport.
Government cannot only provide entrepreneurs with advice and pay checks through SEDA, IDC and others.
Some entrepreneurs actually do not want government’s money – they just want access to global markets through the internet. They just want the ability to connect to like-minded young people across the world at their fingertips.
While government is not wrong in providing start-up capital and other forms of support to SMEs, provision of data will go way beyond the begging bowl funding model that is so rampant in South Africa. Fact of the matter is, government agencies themselves, have placed their funding application forms on their websites and as such, not many South Africans are even aware of them.
How about enabling the citizens to access your information – through free or cheap internet access – and then encouraging them to apply through the web – hassle-free and in an affordable manner. And the government has capacity to do this.
Technology is one of the pillars of freedom of speech and freedom of expression in this century. The lack of free connectivity will stifle too many voices that need to be heard. And perhaps this is one of the fears of government.
Entrepreneurs will benefit from this enormously – through shared knowledge, cheaper communications, new business avenues, new distribution channel (that of the web) and through easy access to government information (especially funding, tax returns, government services, etc).
The benefits to the local economy cannot be over-emphasised.
Market penetration for many companies will increase, levels of savvy towards technology will increase, many more young South Africans can take up informal education that is widely available on the net, government will reach more South Africans and many more South Africans will be able to speak to each other – something that our country needs.
This will expand the continental economic penetration of South Africans – as we connect with more people from other countries and supply services and products to more continental citizens.
In fact, NEPAD, African Renaissance and our own “new growth plan” will only thrive in a seamlessly connected continent.
The new alternative stock exchange in South Africa will remain a dream to many of us if we cannot trade online and through the use of collective knowledge of the markets that can mostly be gained by trawling company histories online.
The enormous technological advances that South Africa and Africa are part of, will remain unknown to us if knowledge that can be gained from the World Wide Web is not opened to us en-masse.
If this does not happen now, our economy will stagnate, many more people will not see their way out of the doldrums of poverty, and we will remain behind in global economics and affairs.
Only the rich will have access to pertinent information and our SMEs potential for success will be stifled.
If this does not happen now, government’s plan to connect schools to the power of the internet is dead in the water. If this does not happen now, the modernisation and digitisation project of government services is a stillborn calf.
If this does not happen now, new types of businesses from our continent are dead. If this does not happen now we can just forget about innovation from this country.
It is important for telcos to see the value of mass-scale internet access for our people, because the more people connect (especially affordably so), the more their services will be used. The first telecommunications company that will set itself as the champion of the poor in data connectivity, will make the biggest gains and position itself for the future.
The current high-speed fibre optic connectivity roll out plans of the telcos is not only baffling, but it is also reflective of the spirit of our time – the spirit of money first.
Our government should step in to ensure that even a spaza shop in Alexandra or a roadside vegetable stall in Clarens have connectivity to enable even these lowest denominators of our economy by way of information access.