Having to conduct your business from your local burger joint because of unreliable internet connectivity should be a necessity that – even for the humblest of freelancers or start-up entrepreneurs – belong to a distant past or a rare emergency situation.
Yet for many small businesses across Africa’s remote, rural regions, this is a daily reality.
“This valley is [known] for bad reception. I know some of my neighbours never had reception. They go into town to the Wimpy to be able to get reception in order to get reception to do business,” says Carien De Villiers, a farm owner in the remote village of Thorndale in South Africa.
The correlation between investment in broadband connectivity and the growth of economic activity has been well established. For every 10 per cent increase in broadband connectivity in developing nations, GDP rises by 1.38 per cent, according to the World Bank.
Tapping into this trend, Abu Dhabi’s Al Yah Satellite Communication Company, known as Yahsat, has been expanding its YahClick broadband internet service to more markets in developing economies across Africa.
Fuelling of the new Al Yah 3 satellite
Its investment of over $200 million in the Al Yah 3 satellite, which became commercially operational earlier this year, has allowed the company to launch broadband service YahClick in eight new markets, including Ghana, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zimbabwe, extending the potential for connectivity even in rural areas.
“Since I’ve had YahClick, I always have a connection, which I can’t say about any of my neighbours,” says Ms De Villiers, who sells livestock to surrounding businesses.
Yahsat satellite arrives in Kourou, French Guiana, prior to launch. Yahsat
This connectivity to rural areas has been available to Ms De Villiers and others in South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya for a number of years now, unlocking potential for schools, businesses and governmental services.
In 2016, Africa’s average internet penetration was forecast to hit 50 per cent by 2025, while the number of smartphones was expected to reach 360 million, a significant rise from 16 per cent and 67 million in 2013, respectively.
Greater access to satellite broadband services could help improve the quality of life, and specifically in regions were internet interruptions are so common they cost businesses millions of dollars a day. Satellite services provide fibre-like speeds without the need for expensive capital investments to develop the infrastructure on the ground.
Yahsat’s third satellite launched in January. Mubadala
“Yahsat, and in alignment to the UN SDG efforts [sustainable development goals] have teamed up with leading e-learning solutions and e-health solutions providers,” says Farhad Khan, chief commercial officer of Yahsat. “These implementations have a direct impact on the social aspect of people; connecting the schools to the internet and transforming the learning environment increases the willingness of pupils to attend their schools and enhances their abilities to create the skills that will benefit them in their lives.”
Ghana was the first African nation to have a mobile service provider in 1992, and two years later was one of the continent’s first to connect to the internet and offer ADSL broadband services to the public.
Today, the nation of 28 million has ambitions to be one of Africa’s leading lights in digitisation and connectivity, something that the “Ghana 2020” plan has made one of its main pillars.
The initiative’s aim is to make Ghana the first African state to become a developed country, between 2020 and 2029, and a newly industrialised country between 2030 and 2039.
“Ghana has always been a pioneering country within the internet, technology and telecommunications space, boasting a myriad of firsts on the continent across mobile, fibre and digital genres,” says Mr Khan.
Last month, at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) world conference in Durban, South Africa, Ghana’s communications minister Ursula Owusu-Ekuful stressed the importance of improving connectivity for the benefit of the country’s socio-economic development.
“It’s imperative that all citizens benefit from the opportunities presented by digitisation and it is crucial that we close the digital divide which threatens to further marginalise the most vulnerable in our communities,” she said.
The opportunities in Africa also include sport. Cameroon in the coming months will increasingly come under the spotlight as it prepares to host the 2019 African Cup of Nations between June 15 and July 13 of next year.
In January, a team from the Confederation of African Football (CAF) that inspected the six venues set to host the matches were reportedly impressed with preparations and general facilities, as well as hotels, transport and security in the country. The one area they deemed inadequate was internet connectivity.
Cameroon’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector accounts for just 3.5 per cent of the country’s GDP according to Research and Markets, while only 25 per cent of the population experiences consistent Internet access.
According to the World Bank, this figure ranks Cameroon 18th among sub-Saharan Africa’s 48 nations for internet penetration.
Cameroon, as hosts and reigning champions of the African Cup of Nations, will no doubt be hoping that the competition, newly expanded to 24 teams, will not suffer from tech and connectivity issues when the world’s press descends on the country.
In an untapped market such as Cameroon, satellite broadband’s consistent delivery of uninterrupted connectivity is set to be a game-changer.
Al Yah 3 will open more opportunities in Africa. Yahsat
The Ivory Coast, despite being the leading Francophone economy in Africa – and a gateway for French speaking enterprises – has internet penetration of just 27 per cent. Only 2 per cent of households in rural areas have internet connectivity, compared to 16 percent in urban communities.
The Ivory Coast is one of the world’s largest producers of coffee, palm oil and cocoa beans, and the potential for new businesses, especially SMEs, is huge. However, many prospective investors have been put off by poor connectivity and low internet penetration. The increased availability of satellite broadband services should create a more confident investment environment.
The legal and commercial implications of increased connectivity are significant, according to Atiq Anjarwalla, managing partner at Anjarwalla, Collins and Haidarmota, and will in the long term help boost investment in local businesses.
“There are of course a number of factors which will encourage new businesses, and especially foreign businesses,” he said. “They include rule of law, tackling corruption and the general ease of doing business by, say, reducing the number of licences and the cost of licences. Clearly, connectivity and cheaper connectivity will also play an important role for an investor who is making a business decision on markets. This would apply in particular for those businesses that either rely on or are looking to develop and deepen business generation [through] e-solutions.”
Above all, increased connectivity should help the spirit of entrepreneurship to flourish in local African communities.
“Africa’s young population is tech savvy and is entirely comfortable with and understands how to communicate and build businesses through mobile and other e-platforms,” Mr Anjarwalla added. “In addition, African governments are increasingly looking to find e-solutions for government services which means that the ease of doing business will also be assisted by increased connectivity. There are many examples of this including in the medical, agriculture, financial services and other sectors.”