In a continent with few computers and little electricity, a smartphone is not just a phone—it’s a potential revolution. J.M. Ledgard reports from Somalia and Kenya ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2011

The front-line in Mogadishu was just beyond the ruined cathedral. You could hear the small-arms fire of the al-Qaeda fighters and the return of heavy machinegun-fire from the sandbagged positions of the African Union troops. But the scene on the sun-washed street in the Hamarweyne district was calm. Women were shopping for fruit and vegetables, and the ciabatta and pasta Mogadishu gained a taste for in its Italian colonial days. A couple of cafés, serving also as electronics shops, were crowded, with people inside making voip phone calls and surfing the internet. Outside on the street boys were fiddling with mobile phones, Nokia and Samsung mostly, but also those fantastical Chinese models you find in poorer countries, nameless, with plastic dragon-like construction, heavy on battery-guzzling features like television tuners. I asked my Somali companion what the boys were up to. He wound down the window and summoned his gunmen to go and ask. The answer came back. “They’re updating their Facebook profiles.”

According to a recent intelligence estimate by a defence contractor, 24% of residents in Mogadishu access the internet at least once a week. This in a city in a state of holy war, too dangerous for foreigners to visit freely, where a quarter of the 1.2m residents live under plastic sheeting, infested, hungry, and reliant on assistance brought in on ships that are liable to be attacked at sea by pirates. Half the population of Mogadishu is under 18. Some of these teenagers end up uploading and downloading ghoulish martyrdom videos and tinkering with websites celebrating the global jihad. But far more spend their time searching for love, following English football teams, reading Somali news sites uncensored by the jihadists, and keeping track of money transfers from relatives abroad. It takes more than violent anarchy to extinguish the desire of the young to stay connected, and to keep up with the contemporaries they see on satellite television.

When it comes to electricity, Africa remains the dark continent. There are a billion Africans, and they use only 4% of the world’s electricity. Most of that is round the edges, in Egypt, the Maghreb and South Africa. The rest of Africa is unlit; seen from space, the Congo River basin is as dark as the Southern Ocean. Demand for power is already outpacing economic growth. With its population expected to double to 2 billion by 2050, Africa will have to build entire new power grids just to stand still. So far, the failure has been systematic: of Nigeria’s 79 power stations, only 17 are working. All of this increases political risk. Some African countries could collapse by 2020 unless they can power an industrial base. Yet Africa’s virtual future is not dependent on its physical future. You don’t need much electricity to run a phone network. You need even less to run a phone itself. Even the scabbiest African village has worked out how to charge mobiles and other devices using car batteries, bicycles and solar panels. Connectivity is a given: it is coming and happening and spreading in Africa whether or not factories get built or young people find jobs. Culture is being formed online as well as on the street: for the foreseeable future, the African voice is going to get louder, while the voice of ageing Europe quietens.

What makes this possible is a series of undersea cables which have finally hooked up Africa to the rest of the internet. EASSY (the East African Submarine Cable System) emerged from the Indian Ocean at Mombasa last July, looking as fine as gossamer and delivering 3.84 terabits per second to 18 countries. It seemed inconceivable that it could carry the weight of so much information and so many hopes. But EASSY and other fibre-optic cables are freeing Africa from the costs and failings of the satellite internet, and for the first time making it affordable for Africans to talk to the outside world and, crucially, to each other. Prices are down, speeds are up: it takes minutes now instead of hours to download a YouTube video. The future is not supposed to feel futuristic—it’s usually far more like the present than the novelists and film-makers imagine—but the present in Africa has been rudimentary for so long that this future really does feel like science fiction.

Ethan Zuckerman is a leading thinker on the internet based at Harvard University. His blog, entitled My Heart’s in Accra, speaks to his long association with Africa. He arrived in Ghana from New England in 1993, on a Fulbright scholarship, to learn African drumming. Every few weeks he would wander down to the central post office in Accra and place a phone call to his future wife in the United States. The line was indistinct and the call cost $5 a minute. His Macbook 1000 died after two weeks in the humidity. On the other side of Africa, Joe Mucheru, a Kenyan who now heads Google’s Africa office, remembers the internet kicking off in Kenya in 1994. Yahoo! and Hotmail e-mail accounts became popular in 1998. The government held onto internet access as a cash cow. Everything was rotten and dormant. “I didn’t know you could make money from air,” said a Kenyan minister, delightedly. But corrupt governments could, simply by withholding access. A 64k modem cost $16,000 a month, if you could get one. By 2000, the price dropped to $3,600. Soon after, as a result of legal challenges and pressure from tech enthusiasts and entrepreneurs, the Kenyan government agreed to open up to competition. For those with the money to buy the new modems, the change was instant, both in terms of information and speed. The post in most African countries was expensive and slow. Parcels frequently went missing (they still do), and there was no home delivery, just post-office boxes. Similarly, African governments had never had the money or the inclination to set up libraries; even university libraries were shoddy, so up-to-date printed material was hard to come by. Then, suddenly, there was the internet, with a cornucopia of knowledge on gardening, or cancer, or the stars of “Friends”.