Wireless Mesh for African Cities — Opportunity through Connectivity

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Dec. 1, 2020 6 min read

Entrepreneur Leila Janah once said “Talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not.”

This phenomenon is especially visible in Africa. Across Africa, you can find highly intelligent and enterprising individuals developing original solutions to problems faced by their community. In many cases, however, Africa’s best minds have not even been able to access formal schooling to gain basic literacy skills.

This disconnect between talent and opportunity also applies in business as well as education. Many African entrepreneurs build successful businesses, but in most cases, they are working in local markets which have very limited potential. The vast majority of them never have a chance to expand beyond the national level.

Many analysts and commentators have recognized that improved connectivity has the power to open the doors of opportunity for Africa. According to a report by the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank, Africa’s internet economy could reach a valuation of $180 billion by 2025, accounting for 5.2% of the continent’s GDP. This figure could exceed $700 billion, or 8.5% of GDP by 2050.

How Connectivity Can Empower Africans

There are many ways in which improved connectivity can empower Africans to build a better future themselves.

Education

One of the factors preventing many children from attending school is the need to support their families from an early age. Another is the difficulty of paying school fees. In some cases, schools can be far from where children live, and many families cannot afford the transportation, uniforms, books and school supplies that come with tuition. On top of that, the quality of public education is a serious problem.

Remote education has the potential to address problems in these areas. High quality lessons and activities can be made accessible and affordable, at any time of day. Children who must help their families can fit their study into any time of the day, without any need for a difficult or expensive commute.

Agriculture

A number of agricultural apps have appeared in recent years that are helping African farmers increase productivity. Several apps are helping farmers share equipment like tractors and plows more effectively, while others use AI to identify crop diseases and recommend treatment. Some analyze weather patterns and make recommendations on when and where to plant crops.

Healthcare

Telemedicine is making great strides in Africa, allowing people across the continent to consult with doctors from the diaspora or specialists in other countries. There are some apps that even enable delivery of medication on demand to areas without pharmacies, or where pharmacies have limited supplies.

Ecommerce

Ecommerce is on the rise, enabling small businesses to reach exponentially bigger markets.

With the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), it will also become easier for small businesses to market their products to other African countries, which can help reduce dependence on expensive imports.

Jobs

With the COVID-19 pandemic, more jobs are going remote than ever before. Remote work in Africa is on the rise, and many African web developers, digital marketers, accountants, video editors, graphic designers, programmers and others are finding clients abroad. This shows that the information economy can be a major source of employment for the continent.

Engineer Africa’s Wireless Mesh Design Initiative

These online innovations have brought a shot of momentum to the African economy, but not all Africans have equal access to the benefits.

One of the major obstacles to internet access in Africa is high costs. While more Africans than ever now have internet access, the amount of data that they can use is insufficient for most educational or business purposes. Most people in Africa access the internet with mobile devices on a pay-as-you-go plans which are priced per GB.

Africa has the highest per GB prices in the world — in some countries, the average price for a GB of mobile data is as high as a third of a typical monthly salary.

Engineer Africa is moving to establish unlimited, free internet access in key urban areas across Africa. Our first pilot project is going to be in Accra, Ghana. We are still analyzing our choice of location based on a few key parameters but there has been commentary on considering the Osu area. The project involves positioning WiFi access points across the neighborhoods of a chosen location. This can provide free, unlimited data access to thousands of youth and professionals. This is discussed further on page 37 of the book we recently released. The book is available for download here.

In the future, we plan to deploy similar initiatives in more cities across Africa to make sure that as many people as possible have access to the emerging opportunities. After the deployment of our pilots projects, Engineer Africa will aid in the distribution of these wireless design solutions in a consulting and advisory capacity.

Accelerating the Move Toward Affordable Internet

The impact of our wireless mesh networks can ripple well beyond the communities who are able to use them.

With more competition in the market, the prices will be lower for consumers. By providing free internet in urban areas, the competition for internet service will intensify, forcing internet service providers to lower prices.

Internet prices are already on the decline, but the more we can accelerate this process, the better.

Leapfrogging to the Next Level

Internet connectivity is a natural priority for Africa’s transformation. The internet can allow Africa to skip a step — boosting jobs and the economy without building much of the expensive infrastructure that was necessary in other countries. With the right approach we can launch the continent to a position of technology leadership.

There is a saying that goes: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” The challenges facing Africa can really be viewed as opportunities, because they inspire innovative solutions, and the internet is one of the most powerful mediums for innovating solutions to Africa’s problems.

At Engineer Africa, we’ve put a lot of thought into how engineering knowledge can support the development of innovative solutions for Africa. The Wireless Mesh Initiative is one concrete example, but you can read about many in our book, The African Diaspora as a Force for Social and Economic Transformation, available for free here.

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