Sub-Saharan Africa has seen great improvements in connectivity infrastructure, with increasing investment in access infrastructure including mobile internet networks and fibre backbones. While this is a step in the right direction, the adoption of technologies such as 3G and 4G is lagging behind, raising the question of why it's taking so long for Africa to get online.
The Internet Society's Global Internet Report notes that Africa has the lowest percentage of internet users in the world with only about only 28.6% of people online, compared to 44.2% in Asia, 73.9% in Europe and 89% in North America.
Penetration Rates, via Internet World Stats
User Numbers, via Internet World Stats
There are several factors that contribute to this low figure, such as the lack of connectivity infrastructure outside the main urban areas, and the high cost of data. One factor that is yet to be properly addressed is the lack of local content that could drive more people to get online.
As much as we are seeing increase in access to the Internet, it is not sufficient for people to just get online. They need to find content that they can relate with in order for them to stay online.
There is a growing emphasis on providing content and services that people use when they are online, which in this case means having more local content. Much of the international content and services is relevant in many countries worldwide, which is true of what we see on social networking services, educational access, and entertainment. However, we are yet to embrace the importance of locally created content given the relevance of the content in the local context.
African languages are underrepresented according to a UNESCO report on linguistic diversity online [PDF]. More than half of all websites globally are in English despite it being a native language for about 5% of the world’s population. Additionally, in most African countries the population is not fluent or literate in the official government language. In Tanzania, for example, less than 10% of the population speaks English as a first language. In Senegal, the same proportion of the population speaks French, the country’s official language.
Africa is the most linguistically diverse region (Source: UNESCO)
Furthermore, African governments do not take the advantage to supplement their online communication with indigenous languages, and this situation leaves a gap on how best to have official communication easily spread. Putting more focus on using indigenous languages online could boost engagement in all aspects of the internet, thus increasing its adoption. It is also important include translations for all relevant content.
The availability of Content too is always limited by legal restrictions on thus impacting on the willingness of international providers and platforms to make content available in a country, along with local developers who may not be willing to have their content shared.
Looking at Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, there are only 16 African language wikis that have more than 1000 pages, with the most popular being Malagasy Wikipedia, with over 81,000 articles as at January 2016. In comparison, the English Wikipedia alone has over 5 million articles of any length.
Source: Wikimedia Foundation
Most Afrikan Content providers and developers often choose to host content abroad in order to access lower cost hosting services. However, content hosted abroad must be transmitted back to the country over international Internet transit links which are still expensive in spite of significant infrastructure investments in recent years. The resulting high costs to access content hosted abroad are generally borne by ISPs.
The promotion and usage of local content online could reach a whole new demographic online, potentially opening new avenues for content and service providers to earn revenue from advertising and sales as more people start using data-intensive services.
The use of locally relevant content has attracted attention from researchers and policymakers, presenting governments and regulators with a challenge of mitigating ways to have local content rolled out in all platforms online. With less attention given to infrastructure and conditions required to promote the local hosting of relevant content, Africa as a whole loses out when it comes to promoting indigenous cultures and uniqueness.
For adoption and usage to grow, it is important that users have access to content that is locally relevant, but even relevant content may not be consumed if it is not quickly and cheaply accessible.