Africa needs more than Facebook to narrow digital gap

Africa is the world’s least connected continent — and that includes Antarctica. Getting more Africans online will require not only drones and lasers — to name just two of the whiz-bang tools philanthro-capitalists want to use to expand access — but also a more grounded commitment to infrastructure investment and good government.

Only 21 percent of Africa’s population has access to the Internet. Mobile phone penetration in sub-Saharan Africa is 73 percent, versus 98 percent in high-income countries. Internet access is relatively expensive: In the Central African Republic, for instance, a month’s service costs more than 1.5 times the annual per capita income.

Plugging more Africans into the World Wide Web would provide an enormous economic boost. If just over half the continent’s population had Internet access, for instance, that could yield a productivity gain of $300 billion (more than one- tenth of its 2013 GDP). What can African countries do to get more of their citizens online?

For starters, they could stop taxing personal computers and smartphones so heavily. These aren’t luxury goods; they’re essential tools for building a 21st-century economy.

Freeing up telecom markets can also help. There’s a balance to be struck — too much competition can reduce the incentive for more investment — but there’s evidence that greater competition encourages adoption. Mobile phone use in African nations with state-controlled monopolies is less than half of what it is in Kenya, which opened up its mobile market in 2000. Countries with multiple providers are also more likely to have independent regulators, another key building block for a competitive marketplace.

A lot of these initiatives depend more on will than wallet. Moreover, their success would provide more than just economic benefits, promoting public engagement and greater political accountability. That may not be as sexy as lasers, but it’s essential to making any talk of “Africa rising” come true.

 – Bloomberg Editorial by James Gibney, Michael Newman