The passage of the Power Africa bill through the US Congress this week will mean the creation of a new beginning for energy on the continent. The US Senate passed the act in mid-December, with a vote expected this week in the House of Representatives. The legislation, officially called the Electrify Africa Act, would give U.S. President Barack Obama a toolkit in which to grow a long term strategy for direct assistance and support of sub-Saharan African nations seeking to grow their power grids. Through a mix of existing and renewable energy sources, this policy brings with it the promise of further reducing poverty, and encouraging economic growth. The lead up to this moment is important to Africa in a multitude of ways.
Its timing is also pertinent. Coming in the last year of President Obama’s term, it is one of the few signature policies the Obama administration has successfully advanced within the African political sphere. Yet, party politics aside, the program has undoubted merits for its aim to deliver
60 million new electricity connections, 30,000 Megawatts of which shall come from green sources. A $43 billion investment all together, both the aim and ambition behind Power Africa is nothing small. This notwithstanding, if electricity is a basic need, the question that follows is what to build next? – That answer may reside in the rollout of broadband internet across the sub-Saharan region.
Alongside the UN affirming internet access is a basic human right, recent years have seen – due the immense shift of bureaucratic and business administration online (as well as shopping, entertainment and more) – access to the World Wide Web now being viewed as a basic human need. Put simply, to not have regular internet access in today’s day and age puts an individual and a community at a great disadvantage.
Therefore, just like basic electricity, seeking to connect more homes to the internet has the advantage of being an easy and straightforward policy to communicate to the public, shows immediate and clear benefits, and offers immense opportunity for its users given the diversity of ways the internet can be utilised. Finally, it offers a compelling narrative – for given within 2014 eight nations in sub-Saharan Africa had the lowest levels of access to the internet in the world – the opportunity to achieve strong change via a simple policy is immense. All this combines into good politics; meaning the capacity of leaders both in Africa and abroad to take this up is not daunted by the risk of the results being intangible or unclear. So, beyond politics, what could a continental African internet policy mean in practice?
Beyond just basic necessity and amenities, investment in broadband across wider Africa would also see off a growing problem likely to loom larger in years ahead: deindustrialisation. On a deeper level the world is seeing a shift away from the traditional industries of manufacturing towards a service economy. As opposed to being small, gradual, or inconsequential, many point to the struggles to move from manufacturing to a service economy as a chief factor in the Chinese economy’s recent stock market turmoil. In turn, the African region has a unique chance within the decade ahead to take advantage of emerging opportunity within the tech sphere – while avoiding the economic turbulence that comes from the decline of existing sectors such as in manufacturing – which even decades ago has been pointed to as a sector set for decline long term.
Further, recent months and years have shown Africa has immense potential within the startup and tech sphere. From the young brothers Osine and Anesi Ikhianosime’s creation of the Crocodile Browser in Nigeria, to the Snapscan e-payment in South Africa, to the accounting system Paysail created in Ghana – it is clear the continent has the capacity for great innovation.
By contrast, given internet penetration at around just 29 percent on the African continent severely lags behind North America and Europe (as well as a number of other regions around the world), it’s also undoubted many more entrepreneurs have ideas to bring forward; but lack the access to do it.
So, where to from here? While the African Union has shown an awareness of the continents challenges – as well as the value in adopting a collective strategy for the future – as of late 2015 a clear plan for a regional approach was not currently in place. Undoubtedly the size and scope of the African continent looms as a significant challenge. This said, the Australian government’s rollout of the National Broadband Network, as well as the ongoing installation of Google Fibre within the continental United States affirms wide installation is not beyond the realms of possibility.
Furthermore, just as Power Africa has engaged the private sector, so too could a continental internet policy within sub-Saharan Africa benefit from the presence of the business community. With global giants like Facebook already having a presence on the continent – as well as participated in ‘free internet’ programs within the sub-Saharan region (though via a platform which concerns net neutrality advocates) – seeking to utilize to realise the public’s aspiration may well provide the greatest results.
If power provides a basic need and necessity, universal access to the internet in Africa could be the policy that provides large-scale opportunity. Its certain the immediate needs of food and shelter shall always loom large when reflecting on aid and progress across the continent. Yet, one need only look at the advances and leading position the relatively small nation of South Korea has acquired within the broader regional economy of the Asian region to recognise large internet penetration can deliver dynamic returns for a national economy. The African region has the need and has shown its residents have the talent to use internet access to grow immense enterprises; is it not now time for a programme that seeks universal internet access for Africans?