By Kim Harrisberg and Kent Mensah

JOHANNESBURG/ACCRA: In addition to food, clothing and nappies donated to a shelter for flood victims in South Africa, one donation proved particularly popular: a Wi-Fi router.

The router allowed students to complete their homework, helped the unemployed find jobs and allowed seamstresses to download dress patterns – tasks that had been tricky for many before due to high internet costs in South Africa.

“Accessing the internet is a human right, but it’s a right we couldn’t afford before,” said Nozipho Sithole, a former nursing home worker who quit her job to help other victims. devastating floods that hit KwaZulu-Natal province in April.

South Africans pay up to 85 rand ($5.29) per gigabyte (GB) of data, a cost equivalent to almost four hours of work for people earning minimum wage.

That compares to around $1.53 per gigabyte in North Africa and $2.47 in Western Europe, according to a new study from the charity Ichikowitz Family Foundation which highlights, among other topics, exorbitant data costs. in sub-Saharan Africa.

The region has the most expensive mobile data prices in the world, according to the Worldwide Mobile Data Pricing 2021 report.

Expensive internet services are widening the so-called ‘digital divide’ between the world’s tech and internet haves and have-nots, according to the United Nations, which says about half of the world’s population belongs to the latter band.

As young Africans, in particular, increasingly see internet access as a basic right, the high price of data could become a burning issue, said Ivor Ichikowitz, chairman of the Ichikowitz Family Foundation.

A survey, conducted by the charity, compiled interviews with around 4,500 young people aged 18-24 across the continent, showing that while 71 per cent considered universal Wi-Fi a basic human right, only one in eight could afford a blanket every time.

“If we go through the survey, there are probably four or five things that would bring young Africans to the streets – and that’s one of the main ones,” Ichikowitz said.

“It’s bizarre to think about, but there’s actually a security risk on the continent, a huge security risk, if this isn’t resolved,” he told the Foundation. Thomson Reuters in a video call.

SMARTPHONES AND SAVINGS

From local social media platforms to basic ISPs, digital innovations are increasingly common on the continent, but tech entrepreneurs say the cost of data is holding them back.

“There are many things we can do here in Africa looking at smartphone penetration in the continent, but due to data costs we are limited,” said Divine Puplampu, a software developer from Ghana.

Smartphones are widely used on the continent, with 64% of sub-Saharan Africans owning one by the end of 2021, a figure expected to rise to 75% by 2025, according to the GSMA, an umbrella organization representing mobile operators globally.

But not everyone with a smartphone will be online, due to the high cost and patchy availability of internet access.

Puplampu estimated that he was spending around 800 Ghanaian cedi ($100) each month on data, and the cost had risen sharply in recent months.

“That alone is someone’s salary and higher than the salary of a national service personnel,” Puplampu said.

A combination of poor infrastructure and the control telecom operators have over consumer prices are among the main causes of high data costs in Africa, Ichikowitz said.

“So it’s not necessarily in the hands of the government unless they change the law…to force telecom operators to make the necessary investments to put profitable high-speed data into as many hands as possible” , did he declare.

Puplampu suggested that policymakers need to make it worthwhile for telecom companies to lower their prices – for example, by lowering license fees and saving them money by using infrastructure. funded by the government.

“This will go a long way in improving internet penetration in the country,” he said, noting that Ghanaians were opposed to a recent electronic tax issued by the government to increase revenue from mobile money transactions.

REMOTE WORK

Making the internet more affordable would be a huge boon to African economies, opening up one of the largest pools of available labor in the world, Ichikowitz said.

“There is no reason why young Africans cannot work remotely in the same way as young Americans, Brazilians and Europeans,” he said.

In Kenya, dubbed “Silicon Savannah” for its large tech sector, 1GB of data is relatively cheaper – costing around 99 Kenyan shillings ($0.85).

But for young Kenyans hoping to lift themselves out of poverty in the country’s burgeoning tech industry, it’s still more than they can afford on top of other essential costs.

Brighton, a 17-year-old student from an informal settlement called Kwangaware in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, graduated from high school in December and now wants to learn coding and become a software developer.

The problem is that by the time he has browsed a few sites to find out where he can learn to code, his data is exhausted.

“Data is too expensive,” said Brighton, who has taken a 300-a-month job on a building site while he plans his next step.

Despite these obstacles, he does not lose hope for a future in technological innovation.

“Everyone says tech is the best industry for young people,” Brighton said, asking not to give his full name.

“I think I’m good with computers and I see a future for myself in technology.”