The adoption of mobile and internet tech shaped Africa’s socio-economic prospects

One of the biggest African stories of the past two decades is how investment in communications – the internet and telecoms – has changed the continent, the writer says. Image: Ali Mkumbwa on Unsplash.

One of the biggest African stories of the past two decades is how investment in communications – the internet and telecoms – has changed the continent, the writer says. Image: Ali Mkumbwa on Unsplash.

Published Feb 27, 2024


By Andile Masuku

I’m pumped to induct a column feature that you should expect to recur.

As opportunity allows, I’ll invite Africa-focused tech ecosystem personalities from all over Africa and the world to share their experiences and perspectives.

Without any ado, here to kick off the column hijack tradition with a fitting follow-up share to last week’s digital transformation strategy pulse check is Russell Southwood.

Southwood is the British author of the book, “Africa. 2.0: Inside a continent’s communications revolution”, published by the Manchester University Press.

As the CEO of Balancing Act, a consultancy that has specialised in telecoms, internet and media in sub-Saharan Africa for more than 20 years, he has been privileged to land front-row stadium seats to many of the historical sketches he shares in the book.

The book thoughtfully evaluates - from a well-plugged outsider’s perspective - how the adoption of mobile and internet technologies is shaping the continent’s socio-economic prospects.

Southwood’s words below and insights shared in his audio interview with Hope Ditlhakanyane and Rajiv Daya on The African Pre-seed podcast are worthy primers for taking in the book, which you should find an illuminating read.

Southwood’s insights:

Southwood said, “One of the biggest African stories of the past two decades is how investment in communications – the internet and telecoms – has changed the continent.

The introduction of liberalisation led to a boom in investment that continues right up until the present day.

Second only to oil and gas, the money created a whole new set of jobs and with those, jobs came skills and expertise that stayed on the continent. When I wrote “Africa. 2.0: Inside a continent’s communications revolution”, I thought it was a story that deserved to be told, with all the good, the bad and the ugly it entails.

The roll-out of cellphone networks happened not only in the larger and more obvious countries like Nigeria and South Africa but even in countries in the grip of civil war like Congo-Brazzaville and Democratic Republic of Congo.

The struggle that was won to break monopolies on international fibre cables saw the price of international bandwidth fall dramatically and laid the foundations for the roll-out of national networks.

Although there were barriers and setbacks, at each stage of the process, the road seemed to widen with each development.

Based on insights from African ingenuity, a mobile money network was launched in Kenya, and these spread slowly across the continent. Cash may still be king, but there are other alternatives.

Lower internet prices, cheaper smartphones and social media created a group of people in each country with access to almost instantaneous information and entertainment.

Africa’s more autocratic rulers paid tribute to the new power of the internet and social media by closing it when they felt threatened.

Various groups of people, like pregnant mothers and farmers, have had access to better information to make decisions. The founders of African start-ups do business in some of the most challenging markets in the world, but technology has enabled them to challenge “patronage capitalism”.

No process like this ever delivers everything. The key question about technologies of all kinds is: Do they simply reinforce cultures or do they transform them?

Based on the evidence gathered in the book, the answer is mixed. There are so many countries, and they often provide strikingly varying answers.

For example, it has been possible to know a great deal more about corruption in the industry and the government in more countries but harder to make the case that technology would help prevent it.

There are things that give cause for hope but they are new shoots.

Billions of dollars of new investment continue to flow into the industry for data centre and cloud infrastructure and, to a lesser extent, to African start-ups from international companies and investors.

African content, like film, TV and music, is more widely delivered internationally, to diaspora communities and interested international audiences. The shape of the industry is changing, and Africa needs to change with it.

Many of the same challenges remain. Some mobile operators have a sufficiently dominant position that they continue to defend old models rather than re-invent themselves. The three-fold challenge of the digital divide remains: getting those subscribed to use it more, getting those not subscribed but covered to use it and reaching out to those who have no access.

And finally, the trickiest challenge of them all: how to regulate online content and social media in ways that will promote freedom of expression and discussion rather than reflexively seeking to stop that happening when it becomes difficult.

Nevertheless, the forces that have created the changes of the past two decades should be capable of overcoming the challenges over the two decades to come,“ Southwood said.

Andile Masuku is Co-founder and executive producer at African Tech Roundup and head of Community at Africa-focused early-stage tech investor Founders Factory Africa. Connect and engage with Andile on X and via LinkedIn.