Africa, Now With Internet

Does it sometimes seem like all technology and internet-related projects in and on Africa have to serve some grand purpose?

Photo: Frereike, via Flickr CC.

Paul English, the co-founder of travel search engine Kayak.com, who is embarking on a project to blanket all of Africa with free and low-cost WiFi, asked the other day: “… The continent of Africa has been so fucked over from an economic standpoint—as an engineer, how do I use my skills to do something that’s transformative?”

Kayak’s project, called JoinAfrica, would provide residents with free basic Web service, including access to email, Google, Wikipedia, and various news sources. Downloads of data-rich video, porn, or other non-essential sites would be limited (similar to what libraries in the U.S. do now), via a process called “bandwidth shaping.”

Turns out English has helped hook up villages in a number of African countries over the past decade, from Burundi to Uganda and Malawi to Zambia. It’s time, he says, to raise it up a couple of notches. For more, read his interview about the project with Fast Company here.

Now, obviously, this has the potential to significantly increase internet penetration on the continent, which is a good thing, or rather, it’s not a bad thing. And, well, I’ll take it over AMREF’s Facebook Status for Africa campaign any day. But (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?), as I tend to give all such projects the side eye, I have to pause.

Mostly, I’m a bit confused about drawing the line at “non-essential sites” (how is that even defined?). Is it me, or does it sometimes seem like all technology and/or internet-related projects in and on Africa have to serve some grand purpose? Maybe people across Africa also want to watch silly videos of cats on YouTube like, seemingly, all Americans do. Maybe not, but you know what I mean. Maybe they’d like to blog or listen to music or, you know, update their own Facebook statuses. The internet is supposed to be fun too, isn’t it? Does it really always have to be about saving Africa?

But, of course, it’s free. Although, what, as Kennedy Kachwanya asks, does free mean for entrepreneurship and innovation in Africa?

Africa is a Country readers, what are your thoughts?

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.