Data Costs Hamstring Africa's Push To Be 'Next Silicon Valley'

The government and regulatory system is failing South Africans when it comes to this struggle to access information.
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Google Africa recently had its first cohort of tech startups present their solutions for accessible services in Africa, to assist in overcoming some of the service-delivery issues faced by many poor communities.

Beyond this, these startups aim to be channels to provide access to critical information in various sectors from beginning to end.

It's a brilliant initiative and idea — theoretically speaking: African solutions for African problems, by Africans. Who could be better equipped to find solutions or alternatives to the various crises our continent faces than the people who live here and know what it is that we are looking to achieve?

So here are a few things to consider, before I get to my point about how, in practice, this will result in some exclusions and leave many people (primarily the target market) behind.

Africa is a mobile-first continent — it has often been reported that in fact it is also a mobile-only continent. Africa's internet use is different to that in the developed world — and there are myriad reasons for this.

African mobile users spend on average three hours per day on their phones. There's a term for this: nomophobia, which is the (irrational) fear of not having your phone nearby. According to leading speakers at Mobile West Africa in Lagos, this phenomenon is sweeping the continent.

The mobile experience is a key factor here, as this invariably means the usage of data. It is said that we are at the beginning of the fourth industrial revolution, and for us not to be left behind, we need to ensure that we have access to the tools that will allow us to get information. This should be a basic human right, but isn't — because of affordability politics.

This digital revolution is affected by the cost of data, which stumps the access to information. It's like having road signs guiding you on your journey to Information — without petrol (access) in your car to get you there. This impedes technological advancement and perpetuates further exclusions — which is what these tech startups are trying to solve, by ensuring that people are allowed access through their apps to the various functions and services which they offer.

But how are we having these conversations, when we haven't yet dealt with the elephant in the room — which is data? There is a need for broadband, particularly in the rural areas, to get the sector moving speedily. The infrastructure is there — cables have been erected, and operators established — so what are we waiting for?

The language in Lagos, when I attended this Google accelerator launchpad, was the branding of Africa as the new Silicon Valley — according to Google country manager in Nigeria, Juliet Ehimuan Chiazor, as she welcomed us to the final day of the programme. She also highlighted how the next Bill Gates is female and African — referencing an article she had written on the same subject, which I found interesting.

I say this because the very first two lines in her article highlight how we need key female players in the STEM field — and yet at the accelerator programme there were only three women in the 12 groups of tech startups.

Undoubtedly the technological field is predominantly male — particularly in Africa — but surely if we are to realise this dream of women on the forefront, we should allow space for them to sit at the table? That means making sure they are represented in spaces such as these, surely?

In any case, my takeaway from the trip was twofold:

1. There are definitely women in the STEM field doing extraordinary work, and we need more of them to be visible in such spaces and to have a seat at the table of the digital revolution.

2. Data is a crisis, one that needs to be addressed — soon.

Icasa has not moved an inch towards ensuring that the #DataMustFall cry is resolved — basically, government and the regulatory system is failing South Africans when it comes to this struggle for access to information.