African youth hungry for connectivity

In a tiny sweltering tin-roofed shack tucked inside one of Mogadishu’s bullet-riddled neighbourhoods, two brothers, Ali Hassan and Mustafa Yare, sit hunched over one of eight humming desktop computers. Together they show Nasteexo Cadey, a young veiled student at Mogadishu University, how to set up her Facebook account, browse YouTube videos and check her e-mail.

The kLab is a working space for young software developers in Kigali, Rwanda. Photo: Jonathan Kalan

The kLab is a working space for young software developers in Kigali, Rwanda. Photo: Jonathan Kalan

For the past few months business has been growing at the brothers’ Kobciye Internet Coffee, one of the several makeshift internet cafés that have emerged in Mogadishu since the Islamic militant group Al-Shabaab fled the city.

“I wanted a business,” Hassan says, “and this is something that I’m good at. I have skills in computers and IT.” With staggering unemployment and few opportunities for youth, any job is a good job, he says. The café costs around US$600 a month to run, and the brothers manage to bring in around $1,000 from their 40 or so daily customers, mostly university students.

Although Somalia’s internet penetration still stands at just above 1% of the population – similar to Afghanistan’s – demand in Mogadishu is growing rapidly. As in the rest of Africa, youth hungry for content, connectivity and change are driving the demand.

The rise of opportunity

For millions of unemployed yet tech-savvy youth across Africa, increased connectivity is bringing tremendous opportunities. By tapping into the continent’s growing digital revolution, young entrepreneurs are using information and communications technology (ICT) to boost their own prospects.

“ICT brings tremendous opportunity” to Africa’s youth, argues Ahmed Alfi, chief executive officer of Sawari Ventures, a venture capital firm in Egypt that focuses on new technology. “With software development, there’s nowhere else you’ll start with a thousand dollars and end with a million. It’s one of the few times in history those types of returns are available,” he told Africa Renewal.

While an internet café may not itself be a million-dollar business, what’s created in it very well could be.

Over the past five years, fibre-optic cables and a backbone network to support them have connected the continent in unprecedented ways, slashing the cost of internet access and opening up new markets for content, software, mobile phone apps and social media. From Somalia to Ghana, Dar es Salaam to Dakar, Cape Town to Cairo, Africa’s youth are finding ways to use ICT to drive growth, build businesses and shape their futures.

Upwardly mobile market

To understand Africa’s digital opportunity, one only has to look at the numbers: six out of the 10 fastest-growing economies are in sub-Saharan Africa. Africa is the second-biggest mobile market in the world – smartphones outsell computers four to one. Over the 18 months to February 2012, Facebook had a user growth rate of 165% in Africa, according to the blog ICTworks.

“By 2016, it is estimated that there will be one billion mobile phones in Africa,” said Mark Casey, director of technology, media and telecoms at the financial consultancy firm Deloitte, in a recent report. “Mobile internet usage in Africa is among the highest in the world. Significant opportunities exist here to use social media in business.”

Ghana’s tech boom

Five years ago, BusyInternet, West Africa’s largest internet provider, opened an internet café in Ghana’s capital, Accra. It had a lounge featuring 100 computers, and Ghanaians from all walks of life would pay about 50 cents an hour to use its high-speed connection. With internet penetration in Ghana at about 10% in 2011, according to government statistics, BusyInternet was one of the few places young folks could go to get online.

Mac-Jordan Degadjor, 26, is one of Ghana’s preeminent technology and social media bloggers and Ghana’s first Internet Freedom Fellow. The fellowship is awarded by the US State Department to individuals who champion freedom of expression and assembly online. He remembers how this single space sparked a revolution in Ghana’s tech scene. “BusyInternet opened a lot of doors for young people living in Ghana,” he told Africa Renewal. “People came together. It became sort of a hub.”

Many of Ghana’s young tech entrepreneurs and bloggers used the space to learn – online and from each other – and to shape a young tech community. They held BarCamps (informal networking forums for young techies) and founded BloggingGhana, a community of bloggers with a passion for Ghanaian content.

According to the US Embassy in Accra, which gave Degadjor the fellowship, these initiatives served to “inspire youth to get online wherever and however they can, making sure they have Ghanaian peers available to walk them through tech challenges”.

By 2008 it was clear that Accra’s vibrant young tech community needed more institutional development. This led to the founding of Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST), which offers a two-year programme on training and mentoring for aspiring African software entrepreneurs. Successful companies have emerged from MEST, including NandiMobile, which provides mobile marketing and customer support for local businesses. Nearly all the entrepreneurs at MEST are in their mid-twenties.

Yet business is not the only thing emerging from Ghana’s young tech scene. @GhanaDecides, a movement monitoring Ghana’s elections via social media, received international acclaim during the run-up to Ghana’s 2012 general election for fostering a better-informed electorate. It advocated free, fair and safe elections. It ran online election-related campaigns and provided offline social media training for youth groups, civil society organisations and public institutions.

Africa’s ‘hub boom’

BusyInternet’s “hub” effect in spurring Ghana’s tech-centric youth into action is not an isolated case. It reflects a pan-African movement towards technology hubs that encourage the formation of communities and empower young developers and entrepreneurs.