Forget growing the economy if data is not made affordable and accessible, or if app developers continue to disrespect phone users in South Africa, says Lorraine Steyn, CEO of KRS.
There is currently a lot of buzz around ICT4D – the fourth Industrial Revolution. As wonderful and exciting as the possibilities are of what technology can facilitate for the advancement of mankind and Africa specifically, it will all fall short if the access to this revolution, is denied to the majority.
We are simply not going to get technology advancing in Africa unless data is more accessible and more affordable. It’s a complete waste of time if nobody can afford it.
In July, we hit the streets and did a random survey of phone users, asking them how many apps they had on their phones, what kind of apps they downloaded on a regular basis and did they ever check their data usage. Since the people we spoke to were all contract phone users, and therefore part of the already economically included and active citizenship, the question of tracking data didn’t really seem to worry any of them.
However, when asking those on the other end of the economic scale the same questions, the answers speak for themselves. Data is so expensive, that pay-as-you-go phone users (the overwhelming majority of phones in SA), are more often than not, switched off for the bulk of the day (known as ‘dead phones’), because there is a perception that the data gets sucked out even if you are not using it. This is an ongoing hotly debatable and contested subject, but hundreds of thousands of people can’t all be wrong…
Additionally, if they do have a smartphone, nearly every week there is a new update from an app provider – like Facebook for example. It might work for the Americans – but here? You want me to do yet another 100 megabyte download to update the app I updated earlier in the month? Really! App developers just do not respect phone users in South Africa.
This is the crux of the matter – we can’t have the cries for economic inclusion without addressing access to data and its affordability. There is an incredible wealth of useful and life-changing material online, and information as to how we can learn and better our chances at gaining employment, or starting a business – but it’s completely out of reach to the vast majority of our population.
We are part of BRICS, from whom we as developing countries, should learn lessons and share best practices, but few of these, if any, seem to have penetrated the SA communications landscape. Look at India for example – data as much as 3 Gb a day, was given away for free. This caused a bit of a free-for-all, so the limit has now been reduced to only 1 Gb a day, but nevertheless, this still has the power to change India’s ecosystem, and it has. Previously prevented people, now have the ability and wherewithal to freely download apps, and, it is no longer a problem being online and interacting in the digital realm. This has fast-tracked India’s socio-economic development. So why can’t it happen here?
While there are laudable efforts to pool people into ‘trappable’ areas – City of Cape Town, and Tshwane for example, that have free Wi-Fi access – it’s OK for checking email and one’s job application process (can’t apply for a job without a phone these days), but we are still not bringing data to a student who could be studying to advance themselves at home, or to a would-be small business owner looking for information or the ability to market themselves or trade online.
Access to the Internet is a basic human right, as resolved by the United Nations in 2016, wherein it is recorded that: “States may not unreasonably restrict an individual’s access to the Internet.” Following this, by the cost of this access in South Africa, being too prohibitive and not widely available, does this mean those who control our data, are in breach of human rights?
This also plays to the UN General Assembly’s third generation right: ‘The Right to Development’. The importance of the Internet in stimulating a nation’s development has been noted by academics, economists and activists. The more we advance into this fourth Industrial Revolution, the less access to Internet, the less likely we will be able to properly participate, creating an even greater divide between those that have and those that do not, than ever before in the history of the world.
The impact of this ‘connected economy’ was summed up by Klaus Schwab, CEO and Founder of the World Economic Forum: “The app economy provides an example of a new job ecosystem. It only began in 2008 when Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, let outside developers create applications for the iPhone. By mid-2015, the global app economy was expected to generate over $100 billion in revenues, surpassing the film industry, which has been in existence for over a century.”
I cannot voice this strongly enough: without providing all our people with affordable and easy access to the Internet – wherever they may be – we can forget any form of economic growth, radical or not.