Bandwidth: The real challenge holding back Africa's tech hubs

There's enormous goodwill and plenty of investment in Africa's entrepreneurial tech scene, but smaller hubs still struggle with basic infrastructure.
Written by Adam Oxford, Contributor

With 88.4 million people living within its borders, Ethiopia is the second largest country in Africa by population. When it comes to internet penetration, however, it shares a spot at the bottom of the table with Somalia and the Central African Republic. The capacity of undersea cables connecting Africa to Europe, Asia and the Americas has soared by more than 10,000 percent over the last four years — neighbouring Kenya can boast around 2Tbps of connectivity and is adding more fast — but Ethiopia has less than 9Gbps of bandwidth to the outside world, and it's holding innovation back.

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Markos Lemma is one of the founders of iceaddis, a pioneering tech hub in the Ethiopian capital which has won international plaudits since it launched in 2011. iceaddis offers its users a shared workspace, along with mentoring programs for technology entrepreneurs and a fabrication lab for hardware prototyping. Even the design of the iceaddis hub is innovative, consisting of six stacked shipping containers on the edges of a university campus.

"Connectivity is our biggest challenge," Lemma says, "it makes just keeping the hub open difficult and very frustrating. Many people come to us specifically for the internet connection we have, and when it's slow or not working it's hard for them to do business."

Unlike its neighbours, Ethiopia's communications network is still the exclusive domain of the state-owned incumbent, and Lemma says that on top of dropped connections costs are pushed up due to lack of flexibility. Available bundles simply aren't designed for the relatively demanding use of a shared workspace, he says, and there's no pressure to change.

Lemma does say that the situation is improving. Double digit economic growth has attracted businesses and tourists to Addis Ababa, which has encouraged the rollout out of a functioning 3G network there, but outside the capital any kind of connectivity is rare.

iceaddis is just one of a hundred or so tech hubs and hackspaces which have sprung up all over Africa in the last few years, all hoping to help foster a generation of technology entrepreneurs who can help to increase the speed of overall development through commercial and social endeavours. While Ethiopia has a history of difficulties with the internet — the government banned VoIP services such as Skype last year — the problem of bandwidth is the primary concern among many similar establishments across the continent, who meet regularly to discuss issues online via the Afrihubs Webgathering site.

"Without internet, there's simply no productivity," says Daniel Nanghaka of Hive Colab in Kampala. His thoughts are echoed by the director of iLab Liberia, Teemu Ropponen.

iLab is a co-working space which is one of the few institutions in the country to offer an internet connection and IT training skills, which it runs alongside programs for entrepreneurialism, open government and transparency and ICT for women. It's a service the country badly needs.

"In May 2011 a team from [not-for-profit tech company] Ushahidi came to Liberia to track the elections," Ropponen says, "but they had big problems with no infrastructure, no connectivity and no-one with skills to use the system locally."

Around 60 people a day use iLab's facilities, Ropponen says, and its members have been almost single-handedly responsible for creating digital maps of Liberia.

Despite the fact that iLab only manages to meet 25 percent of its costs from member subscriptions and relies heavily on donor funding, iLab's broadband connection is via an expensive satellite system which soaks up most of its funds. When the weather is bad, the signal is highly intermittent. The cost puts iLab in a highly vulnerable position: one of the most highly regarded ICT projects in international development, MachaWorks in Zambia, was forced to close down early last year after a funder pulled out and it was left unable to cover the costs of its satellite-based infrastructure.

It's not just the hubs that suffer, says Ropponen. A better communications network is vital for countries like Liberia to attract overseas investment and allow large companies to open local offices there.

"Things are getting better, there is an improvement in the infrastructure here," says Ropponen, "but it doesn't often feel like it."

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