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The Impact of Digital Infrastructure in Africa

It’s no secret that the benefits of broadband are widely taken for granted. From online banking, last minute grocery shopping, or working on an international basis – we spend the majority of our day online.

Businesses in 2016 are fully reliant on the internet and it’s safe to say that the business world would quickly come to a sharp halt if it were to become unavailable. In fact, the past 18 months has seen a large number of UK businesses become more and more vocal about how the poor connections found across the country are negatively affecting their businesses. Business owners made their frustrations quite clear in a letter recently to the Culture, Media and Sport Secretary; the letter was signed by 52 Chambers of Commerce and represented 75,000 businesses that employ over 4 million members of staff.

While the UK is the number one internet economy in the G20, we still suffer some of the slowest broadband speeds in Europe – the monetary value of downtime is estimated at around £11 billion each year. On the other hand, the take up of high speed broadband in the UK is projected to add around £17 Billion to the UK’s Gross Value Added by 2024. Why? Because fast and reliable digital infrastructures increase productivity levels and business growth, safeguard local employment, aids teleworker productivity and reduces barriers to employment. All in all, a high speed connection serves to enable collaboration and work beyond current limitations.

High speed internet has also had a significant impact in areas that have needed streamlining and modernising; the healthcare system benefits by being able to transfer information and data heavy images such as CT or MRI scans more quickly. We have already seen the benefits when it comes to both national and international travel with the introduction of ‘dumb terminals’ at ticket machines and check in points. For the most part, all contributing to a far more efficient modern society.

However, are we experiencing a digital apartheid? When we see the impact that a high speed digital infrastructure has had on a flourishing internet economy, surely opportunity is there to invest in these infrastructures in developing countries? Of course there is, and this is exactly what is being done in Africa!

Bandwidth on the African continent is now growing at a phenomenal rate, in fact its growing faster than anywhere else in the world. It has been calculated that access to high-speed bandwidth has increased twentyfold over the last 5 years. This is a substantial backbone for the potential development of an internet economy and a frontier for business.

Its common knowledge that Africa has the world’s youngest and fastest growing population, but it also has one of the largest source of talent – that is relatively untapped. As the growth of digital infrastructure powers ahead across the continent, so will its adoption. In 2013, only 16% of the African population was online; it has been projected that by 2025 this figure will rise to 50% – putting 600 million people ‘online’.

Why is this such a positive prospective? Because in today’s digital age, the internet is giving birth to creativity, to opportunities and ultimately, to business success. It will enable Africa’s budding young talent to emerge from the political instability that has so far prevented them from progressing in a variety of ways and put their knowledge, skills and creativity to use. This can present itself as an opening in the talent pool and current businesses to take their employment to Africa and use teleworking thanks to fast and reliable connections, or it could present itself as an opportunity for entrepreneurs to collectively come together and create hub cities across the continent.

We are already seeing tech hubs emerge in Lagos, Nigeria and Nairobi, Kenya and in 2014, African start-ups raised around £200 million in venture money, proving that a solid digital infrastructure can fuel tech savvy and success hungry individuals. In fact, Intel are offering Student Partner programmes for those studying computer science or engineering in cities across Africa, proving that large corporations are also making use of the high speed internet that is becoming available.

Large businesses moving to a developing country is going to be a boost for the economy; however there are also a number of other factors that will make it an attractive option for businesses that operate internationally.   One, of course naturally is the digital infrastructure, the other is language – English is wide spoken across Africa.

Yet another benefit and the other is business hours. West Africa operates on Greenwich Mean Time, which means these young businesses already have a foot on the ladder when it comes to collaborating with businesses in the UK.

It’s safe to say that digital infrastructure is playing the role of ‘back bone’ to burgeoning tech start-ups and acting as a catalyst when it comes to providing the necessary opportunities for employment in developing countries, and will undoubtedly play a critical role in thousands of young people’s lives.