We are not prioritizing productive use of internet

Tuesday February 23 2021
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Raymond Mugisha

By Raymond Mugisha

Majority of Africans who use internet utilize it for social and entertainment purposes. They use it to stay in touch with family and friends. A Spring 2017 Global Attitudes Survey Report put the median Sub-Saharan African population who use internet for this purpose at 85 per cent. The same report highlights the next popular purpose of the internet in Sub-Saharan Africa to be the search for information and news about politics.

This slot takes a median 53 per cent of internet users. The next biggest category use internet to get information about government services. Their place occupies a median of 51 per cent on the scale of internet users. Utilisation of internet for career and commerce takes a median of 26 per cent of the internet users on this same scale. If the activity of making and receiving payments is excluded, the median population of internet users focusing on career and commerce declines to a miserable 19 per cent. These mainly use the internet to buy products, take classes and look for jobs and apply for them.

Just mid last year, upon consideration of various indicators, Forbes highlighted that Africa is the next frontier for the internet and pointed out some relevant and exciting expectations for the continent. Owing to current demographics and other trends, some experts have also indicated that Sub-Saharan Africa may record the highest rates of internet penetration in the near future. While the outlook of all this is impressive, without reorienting ourselves with regard to what we use the internet for, we may actually never realise the huge and positive impact expected from growing internet uptake on the continent.  

Global revenues from ecommerce retail have been projected to hit about $6.5trillion by 2023, an equivalent of about 7 per cent of recent global GDP figures. Needless to say, Africa will not have a reportable share of this revenue, since commerce is not yet a prioritised purpose of internet usage on the continent. The activities that take most of the time of African internet users are those on which they spend money for internet data costs, without anticipated direct financial returns. Not many Africans can lay claim to social and entertainment engagements on the internet as a source of value to them, in a material sense. While not all that matters is material in form, most of what Africa lacks is actually material.

The deficit of supply in basic needs faced by the continent is entirely material. Our socio-cultural systems have always fared fairly well even without internet. We therefore possibly stand to benefit the least from the internet on the social front, compared to the rest of the world. Conversely, being the poorest lot in the world, the creation of material gain from the internet should rank highest on our priorities. Its social benefits would in a way border on luxurious for a continent as poor as ourselves, considering our comparatively advantaged and pre-existing social structure. Our priorities on the internet are thus, to an extent, inverted.

As we celebrate the growing uptake of internet on the continent, wealthier communities of the world may continue to benefit from it than ourselves due to our lagging and unprioritised ecommerce position amongst African populations. With an already rich social heritage to boast of, we seem to be mainly digitalising our socio-cultural systems instead of utilising the internet to acquire what we lack most in material wealth.
 
For better context, and as an example for us in Africa to ponder on, about 78 per cent of Chinese on internet use it for online shopping. Some authoritative sources report that retail e-commerce sales in India were forecast to increase from just over $6 billion in 2017 to approximately $25 billion by 2024. Mobile shopping has also gained space in the country with almost 49 per cent of Indian consumers stating that they regularly use their mobile phones to purchase goods or services. Internet also serves significant purposes in these places, but this does not crowd out the use of internet for commerce and material progress.

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As Africans, we need to chase after such examples and not allow the social pleasures offered by the internet be a stop-stage for us where we delay too long on the path towards realizing the full and positive potential of internet on our communities. If we focus on how internet access and usage is progressing on our continent, without assigning even more focus on what we are using it for, we shall lose out.

We may choose not to slash down our internet use for social and entertainment and other non-commerce purposes, but we must expand our internet-for-commerce slate and other directly productive pursuits. Even our love for social interaction on internet provides social media opportunities to create and promote our own information products, promote the products and services we already offer, take advantage of visual media to advertise crafts and other merchandise and promote literally most of the businesses we do, for both services and product offerings. For now, while some of us do, generally we are not doing well yet.

Raymond is a Chartered Risk Analyst and risk management consultant
rmugisha@afriaccent.com

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