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Lack of local-language content limits Africa’s internet adoption

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Africa is the region with the lowest percentage of internet users in the world. According to recent data by Internet World Stats, only 28.6% of people are online, compared to 44.2% in Asia, 73.9% in Europe and 89% in North America.

This has historically been credited to Africa’s infrastructure deficit and consequential high costs of connectivity. However, a new report suggests that the internet’s lack of locally-relevant content is also a significant hurdle to adoption.

Produced by the Internet Society, the report – titled Promoting Content in Africa – notes that internet adoption is “low and slowing”, despite recent improvements in infrastructure availability.

For example, 10 years ago there was only one submarine cable reaching sub-Saharan Africa. Today, many coastal countries have multiple submarine cable connections, while countries inland generally have at least one connection to a submarine landing station through a neighbouring market. More significantly, mobile phones and smart devices have revolutionised internet access.

The report highlights that the cost of internet connectivity has fallen as a result: “For instance, most African internet markets have some degree of international access competition, since most coastal markets are now served by several submarine cables, which has led to a corresponding decrease in costs of internet access.”

“At the same time, international internet bandwidth in Africa grew 51% annually between 2010 and 2015.”

A need for content in local languages

A lack of local content might be the key barrier to internet adoption today.

“As we are increasingly seeing, the ability to access the internet is necessary, but not sufficient, to increase internet adoption in a country. It is a means to an end, which is the content and services that people use when they are online,” states the report.

“Much of the international content and services are relevant in many countries worldwide – this is true of social-networking services, educational access, and, of course, entertainment. However, we also note the importance of locally created content, given the relevance of the content in the local context.”

Internet Society’s research shows that Africa generally lacks locally relevant online content – with African languages being vastly under-represented. As it stands, over half of all websites globally are in English despite it being a native language for about 5% of the world’s population.

Furthermore, in many African countries the population is not fluent or literate in the official government language. For example, in Tanzania less than 10% of the population speaks English, which, in addition to Swahili, is an official language in the country. In Senegal the same proportion of the population speaks French, the country’s official language. Few African government websites provide full translations to other spoken languages.

The report argues that an increased focus on local languages would better engage users in all aspects of the internet and, as a result, increase adoption. Recommendations include providing translations for as much relevant content as possible.

“In addition to this, interfaces such as apps should be able to use icons that users can interpret, even when they are not literate,” suggests the report.

“Furthermore, internet usage amongst the illiterate can also be stimulated by an added focus on audio and video communication, though of course these forms of communication do come at a greater cost in terms of bandwidth.”

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