Africa's increasingly connected population has long attracted the attention of tech giants such as Google and Facebook. As their home markets became saturated, they set their sights to the “frontier markets” in Sub-Saharan Africa, opening up liaison offices and recruiting the best local talent to help draw people in.
The term “frontier” in itself beautifully captures the opportunities and perils involved. It sounds like a wide-open opportunity, adventurous, perhaps even romantic, but not without its risks.
They were here in part because the internet had torn down geographical barriers, and was transforming from a luxury of the Western world to a utility and a basic need. As their user numbers grew, they continued their push to the very last mile of the frontier markets.
This growth was fueled by the landing of fiber-optic cables and the subsequent drop in data costs as bandwidth became cheaper and readily available. The internet helped drag Africa into the 21st century, driving social and economic progress by making connectivity easier, and knowledge more readily available. The opportunities that could arise from its application in various aspects of life in the global south seemed endless.
However, governments tend to be lukewarm at best, and openly hostile at worst, maintaining the belief that the internet could be used as a tool to foment popular dissent in the wrong hands.
However, the tech giants soldiered on with their mission to connect humanity to the internet, working with - and in some cases around - governments, helped along by the proliferation of smartphones and cheaper data packages.
I have fond memories of the inaugural Google Developer Day in Kampala in 2012. Largely because of the largesse and googliness of the day has never been matched by any tech event before and after. And also because I rubbed shoulders with the then head of Google London, Jason Bigler and top officials from Google Africa.
And it wasn’t long until the search giant announced plans to launch a metro optical fiber network spanning about 400 km between Kampala and Entebbe.There was a particular kind of excitement around this project, dubbed Project Link.
Two years down the road, it’s hard to figure out whether the project actually achieved what it was meant to, or if it was sent to the infamous limbo. As far as I know even Google’s Kampala office seems to be pulling out of the market.
On one hand as Google and the like were shovelling infrastructure goals to enable last mile communication, on the other hand, they were lobbying and literally begging developers to build on their platforms.
That was the beginning of the frustration. Lack of defined regulatory frameworks meant that they had to negotiate back and forth with Africa’s strongmen (in an African manner or euphemistically put as twisting arms and carrying bottles of Chateau Margaux) and on another front, they had to beg and train developers to build applications and products that fit the local context.
It seemed to work but only piecemeal. The costs couldn’t be justified even when adjusted for the benefits in the long run. So basically, tech giants have since been relegated to running like NGOs.
Despite the slump in the prices of data, which still remain high by industry standards and a slump in prices of internet devices. The cost of setting up the infrastructure necessary for internet access has not always been well received.
For example in India, stakeholders vehemently rallied against Facebook’s Internet.org, barring zero rated internet access to a billion people. This has been quite different a case in Africa. Governments, most recently Nigeria where Mark Zuckerberg made a couple of visits, have showed commitment gratitude towards supporting Facebook's 'free' internet.
This would effectively let Facebook ration and monetize access to a select few sites. They know where the money is - strategic markets with large populations, in this case India, Brazil and partly Nigeria. The largest part of sub Saharan Africa, however, remains on the sidelines.
The frontier market is brutal, with a number of experiments launched in an attempt to capitlize on the opportunities they present ending in failure. These include the Firefox OS smartphone that failed to meet its promised objective to make inroads in the emerging markets, and the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) whose grand ambitions were ambushed by harsh market realities.
As the tech giants changed tact, they killed off whatever projects failed to take off, reorganising their resources to push “frontier tech”, which is an extension of the sort of solutionism and pseudo-philanthropic initiatives that have taken root in Silicon Valley.
We can pontificate all we want about what Africa (and other frontier markets) need to meet the vision of connecting the remaining two-thirds on the internet, but the tech giants ultimately remain masters of which direction their initiatives should follow.
Different parts of frontier tech are at different parts of the hype cycle. But on the whole, this is where the world is going.
Frontier tech takes things that have been shelved in the R&D Department or perhaps had only existed in science fiction, things like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Reality (VR), Internet of Things (IoT) among others, and applies them in the unchartered fields of technology.
Tech giants have probably figured out that it is better to take of this new frontier and make advancements given the existence of favourable conditions to pursue such. There is potential for exploiting new revenue streams and a possible chance of connecting billions of people to the internet without encumbrances as experienced before.
Facebook, for example, is disrupting incumbents through by the full deployment of frontier technology. They built a switching system for networks and routers, taking on Cisco with a free and open source alternative.
Facebook's OpenCellular is also an open source wireless access platform, seemingly copied from BRCK, a rugged internet device also targeted at the last mile. In both of these situations, Facebook appears to be winning.
Even after losing a $200 million satellite in SpaceX’s Amos 6 explosion, the new big blue is not showing a sign of faltering on the ambitious internet-beaming drones and satellites projects.
The future for frontier tech looks bullish, even as the tech giants take the path less travelled, pushing the limits in the quest for a greater share of the market. They're taking to the skies with drones, satellites, and chances of data packets raining throughout the year.