If young people in Africa are exposed to fast, affordable internet, amazing things can happen.
I count myself lucky to be among this group of young men and women.
I grew up in a middle-class family in Uganda, headed by a single mother who worked in a bank, in the biggest city of the country. Contrary to outsider’s notions of what an African middle-class family might look like, we had cable television, ate Kellogg’s cornflakes for breakfast, and when computers became the objet du jour, my mother bought a Compaq desktop and also a moderately fast dial-up internet connection.
From the age of 11, I could type as fast as a secretary, download and print a map of the world, and chat with my pen-pal Carl, from Fresno, California.
Whenever I clicked that Microsoft Internet Explorer icon, I felt intellectually invincible.
I believe early access to the internet gave me agency and breadth to learn about my local and global surroundings in ways my teachers could never do.
As an educational platform, the internet empowers many young Ugandans to create positive and tangible socioeconomic shifts in our society. From just one in 2009, there were 10 undersea communication cables around Africa in 2012.
The demand for instant connectivity is no longer simmering but boiling. The assurance of a steady 4G mobile network means that when a globally-acclaimed R&B singer in a Los Angeles stadium falls down on stage, the video will be seen by a group of friends in a Kampala bar two minutes later. Just as fast it would in Chicago. If that did not steal one breath, maybe this will: Ugandans are subscribing to internet data bundles at a rate of 91.7% a year.
Ugandan youth not only use the internet for social media and consuming content. Many, like the ones I was fortunate to meet during my research of this topic, are using their thirst for progress to become the next big social entrepreneurs.
For example, Aulesius Bazanyengo was the lead chemist of Uganda’s first homegrown high-end skincare line Amagara Skincare. When Bazanyengo was approached by Amagara to create the best quality bathing soaps, shampoos, and lotions, he knew where to turn. For months, he poured over cosmetic and skincare websites, online textbooks and excerpts from Estēe Lauder and L’Oréal Paris.
He was 26.
Similarly, Angel, Nunu and Janet are three friends all under the age of 30 who opened up BOLD; a small boutique that exclusively sells merchandise from up-and-coming African fashion designers.
Through social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, they were able to take their business from the tight crevice of oblivion to most popular fashion store in Kampala, in less than 3 months.
To this day, they have never advertised through traditional formats like print or radio but continue to harness the power of word of mouth. Or in this case, the strength of likes, mentions and Insta-regrams. I believe the biggest takeaway from BOLD and Aulesius’ success comes in the way they are able to demonstrate that, arming oneself with determination and an internet connection will enhance your capacity to dream (and achieve) big.
In the same way that governments have the responsibility to empower their citizens with the right tools for prosperity, so do commercial brands that are widening their footprint into Africa. With the internet, the world is no longer vast and incomprehensible. All its layers are accessible and ready to be learned at the shift of a cursor.
Blogs, online personalities and popular TV shows have ensured communities can be built across different countries. Jokes are shared between people who will never lay eyes on each other. Students in Dakar and Taipei take online courses at the same time.
During my brief stint as a copywriter in a Kampala agency, I realized that it is simply unacceptable and unfair to use second-hand research and strategy from South Africa or Europe to market similar products.
Africa has approximately 1.1 billion people living in 54 sovereign states, each with distinct tribes and cultures. Communicating with or learning about the people of this continent should not be haphazard but detailed and truly insightful. Different brands in America strive to become accurate extensions of their dedicated customers.
So why shouldn’t the same treatment be awarded to Africans?
The better you know them, the more successful and effective your message becomes.
My opinion does not diminish grants or loans from the World Bank and IMF, Foreign Direct Investment or foreign military support. Merely, I hope it highlights the superior way changing one's mindset and behavior through education can benefit Africa.
The leaders of our nations need to pave the way for social and economic policies that encourage a wider access of affordable online educational tools. Brands with influence need to remember that using third-party research companies or importing consumer insight strategies, cannot always help you communicate equally with buyers in Uganda, Rwanda or Ethiopia at the same time.
The internet provides a platform for self-driven education. The information one gets is mostly free and equalizes the playing field across income and social class.
A powerful leader is not the one that can flex his muscles better, but a visionary with the foresight to recognize the timeless value of an educated and mentally confident population.
Cover Image: Student Internet Cafe | OER Africa