Africa, Now With Internet

Does it sometimes seem like all technology and internet-related projects in and on Africa have to serve some grand purpose?

Photo: Frereike, via Flickr CC.

Paul English, the co-founder of travel search engine, who is embarking on a project to blanket all of Africa with free and low-cost WiFi, asked the other day: “… The continent of Africa has been so fucked over from an economic standpoint—as an engineer, how do I use my skills to do something that’s transformative?”

Kayak’s project, called JoinAfrica, would provide residents with free basic Web service, including access to email, Google, Wikipedia, and various news sources. Downloads of data-rich video, porn, or other non-essential sites would be limited (similar to what libraries in the U.S. do now), via a process called “bandwidth shaping.”

Turns out English has helped hook up villages in a number of African countries over the past decade, from Burundi to Uganda and Malawi to Zambia. It’s time, he says, to raise it up a couple of notches. For more, read his interview about the project with Fast Company here.

Now, obviously, this has the potential to significantly increase internet penetration on the continent, which is a good thing, or rather, it’s not a bad thing. And, well, I’ll take it over AMREF’s Facebook Status for Africa campaign any day. But (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?), as I tend to give all such projects the side eye, I have to pause.

Mostly, I’m a bit confused about drawing the line at “non-essential sites” (how is that even defined?). Is it me, or does it sometimes seem like all technology and/or internet-related projects in and on Africa have to serve some grand purpose? Maybe people across Africa also want to watch silly videos of cats on YouTube like, seemingly, all Americans do. Maybe not, but you know what I mean. Maybe they’d like to blog or listen to music or, you know, update their own Facebook statuses. The internet is supposed to be fun too, isn’t it? Does it really always have to be about saving Africa?

But, of course, it’s free. Although, what, as Kennedy Kachwanya asks, does free mean for entrepreneurship and innovation in Africa?

Africa is a Country readers, what are your thoughts?

Further Reading

Action required

Held in Nairobi this month, the inaugural Africa Climate Summit is an important step for the continent’s response to climate change. Still, the disasters in Libya and Morocco underscore that rhetoric and declarations are not enough.

The strange non-death of Bantustans

That South African political parties across the spectrum were quick to venerate the politician and Zulu prince Mangosutho Buthelezi, who died last week, demonstrates that the country is still attached to Bantustan ideology.

Shifting the guilt

Even though Israeli novelist Agur Schiff’s latest book is meant to be a satirical reflection on the legacy of slavery and stereotypes about Africa, it ends up reinforcing them.

Banana Republics

Western leftists are arguing among themselves about whether there will be bananas under socialism. In Africa, however, bananas do not necessarily represent the vagaries of capitalism.

Sudan’s lying witches

Since 2019, two separate political processes developed simultaneously in Sudan: one at the state level and the other at the grassroots. Today’s war originates in the predominance of the former over the latter.