Recent headlines on the move by Google and Facebook to construct undersea cables to increase internet connectivity have flooded the media in Africa. In true unrepentant African fashion, most media outlets, both home and abroad have tried to paint these Big Tech companies as saviours of some sort. However, the question is whether this move is a Samaritan gesture or there are serious other vested interests involved.
Africa has been experiencing a rapid population growth which made it a great space for economic growth. The continent has also leapfrogged the conventional path to development as it saw rapid mobile internet growth before it had achieved any major fixed line development.
This growing user base has made the continent the unlikely frontier of new Big Tech data wars. Uber has already started moving through it's $3 billion acquisition of Careem which operates in Egypt and the Middle East. Google has made significant investments in an Artificial Intelligence centre and Microsoft plans to follow suit.
It's a whole new scramble and partition of Africa again. This time, it is data that it is at stake. It will be sad if Africans see this push for connectivity as an act of charity. Just the way we are letting our data go through the data harvesting project known as Free Basics.
Free Basics lets people in some countries access Facebook and other websites without charges. It has been touted as mankind's most significant development towards promoting "internet as a right" for all. Stop to think, how many of those sites are for African startups? Your guess is as good as mine.
“Facebook is not introducing people to open internet where you can learn, create and build things,” Ellery Biddle, advocacy director of Global Voices told The Guardian in July of 2017. “It’s building this little web that turns the user into a mostly passive consumer of mostly Western corporate content. That’s digital colonialism.”
Most Africans probably remained ignorant of the Cambridge Analytica scandal as it erupted in the United States. It seemed as if we were beyond harm and it had no relevance whatsoever to our context as Africans. Yet with increased globalisation, the risks that were highlighted by this scandal are very close to home.
If Facebook and Google have their way, African users will continue hanging on to their services rather than homegrown services. Of course, this is already the status quo. Millions of African users already are hooked on the services that the Big Tech companies offer.
The biggest risk posed by the high reliance on their services means that homegrown solutions and companies will be suffocated. They cannot stand a chance against Silicon Valley ammunition.
For instance, Facebook's undersea cables are being built as a partnership with Vodacom and MTN. Undoubtedly this relationship gives it leverage in terms of access to the subscriber base of these operators. Leverage that African startups can only dream about.
As many more African startups realise that they stand no chance against Big Tech competition, they forced to give in or sell off to the Big Tech companies. It is a very rational business decision. Just like in the Careem, it opens access to the much needed Silicon Valley financing. However, when you look at the exploitation multinationals have had in other sectors in Africa you realise the risks that it poses to national security and livelihoods.
The impending invasion has also been evident in the euphoria surrounding Facebook's planned introduction of Libra. What does this mean for Africa's mobile money services?
It is tempting to think that the currency will fail as mobile money services have thrived because they are USSD based rather than internet based. Well, this works in the short term. In the long term, Facebook's currency will offer a much cheaper option for remittances as compared to mobile money services and the banking sector. This will inevitably cause a shift in the market for a significant number of Africans already lurching to most of its services.
Imagine being able to send money back home using Whatsapp? It's a whole new revolution for most. It cuts out the exorbitant rates of remittances agencies and the bureaucracy involved.
It is sad how African governments wag their tails at the prospect of exploitation in the name of investment. It is the same attitude that has the continent indebted to the West through the IMF and World Bank, and most recently to the shrewd Chinese.
Africa needs to rethink it's technology investment policy and regulation. It is important we realise that we need to put African interests before we get excited about foreign investment.
Header Image Credit: Google Africa