The 2nd Scramble For Africa: Offshore Tech Giants Wants To Rule Africa’s Digital Market
I am not a believer in stereotyping and profiling; I like to think of myself as a tolerant and open-minded citizen of the World Wide Web. However, we cannot ignore history and precedent. If history has showed us anything, it is that Africa is not a huge technology front runner. Looking at the past, we have not shown much zeal in the sector, but there is a lot of hope. Judging by the numbers of tech hubs, incubators and accelerators sprouting up across the continent.
But big offshore tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, could disrupt this growth; not by stunting it, rather by dictating it. They are now locked in a rat race to cash in on the gold that is the African digital content consumers. Each has come up its own campaign strategy different from the other, but all geared towards claiming the alpha-male position on the African tech scene.
Facebook and Google are perhaps the most aggressive and most pronounced offshore tech giants scrambling for Africa. They even entice consumers with freebies: Facebook with its Internet.org that provides users the stripped-down version of its social network including other sites for free. Google’s example is its partnership with Safaricom to give ‘free zones’ in Kenya where users can email and access the internet for free.
But critics or conspiracy theorists if I may, argue that these are well-calculated move to lock in African consumers; before they get the interest in exploring the alternative options on the table.
The African continent is made up of 1 billion people, and by 2013, the internet penetration on the continent stood at 16% with 67 million smartphones in use. The McKinsey Consultants data estimates that by 2025, internet penetration will have reached 50% and by then, there will be about 360 million smartphones on the continent. This number is about twice the number of smartphones currently in existence across the United States.
If these tech giants successfully entice the entire African consumers market with these freebies and divide it among themselves. Can you anticipate just how much advertisement revenues these offshore companies stand to gain from across the African continent?
The African continent is like a sitting duck and within it is the jackpot for ad incomes. But the tech giants must first facilitate the installation of the necessary infrastructure then entice them to use their services and sites first and foremost. Thereby effectively locking African consumers within their platforms, and having a market that can be easily controlled and manipulated by the ‘powers that giveth’. The users locked within it will have little to zero options for exploring the alternatives on the table. A scenario that can be likened to a ‘Digital Prison’.
Facebook and Google are currently busy courting mobile service carriers across the continent such as MTN, Vodacom, Bharti Airtel and Safaricom among others. Some might liken them to be operating like drug pushers; give a potential customers free ‘hits’ in small dosage just enough to get them feel the high. The minute they become addicted, start craving for more and can’t do without, you start charging and being in control of their fate. An ingenious plan, I must admit.
Looking at it from the angle of an African technopreneur, who is thinking of venturing into the field and can’t afford to provide freebies like the big offshore tech companies. The move by Facebook and Google could be killing Africa’s home grown solutions, innovations, and entrepreneurship. How will Africa come up with its own Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and the likes?
If unchecked the likes of mobile service carriers could play the role of African slave traders. That were paid to capture and sell off their fellow Africans to strange ‘big boats’ that took them across the ‘big river’ and into slavery.
At the same time, talking as a victim of slow and unreliable internet connection. I cannot advocate such the initiatives by Google and Facebook not roll out in Africa. Rather African Governments need to set up oversight bodies to regulate just how much influence the offshore companies will have. With respect to net neutrality and lack of discrimination; by this I mean where some internet services are given faster access than others. This could lead to new services to enter the market being disadvantaged and frustrated in favor of the already established services.