The “connected” and “innovative” African millennial generation
According to Ball-Rokeach (2001), the term “connected” reflects a multi-level and contextual way of envisioning the relationship between individuals and technology (cf. Ball-Rokeach 2001:485–510). Being technologically connected in a general sense suggests an increased internet penetration and demand. Of late, Africa’s internet penetration has been at an all-time high—with an estimated growth of 27.0 % with 313,257,074 users as of June 30, 2015 (Internet World Stats 2015). Consultants at the McKinsey Global Institute have equally estimated a double penetration of 50 % by 2025 with an influx of over 360 million smartphones on the continent (cf. Manyika et al. 2013). With the increased connectivity to the internet among millions of unemployed and innovative tech-savvy millennials across the African continent, it seems that internet connectivity is bringing tremendous opportunities and revolutionizing home-grown solutions in Africa, as Africa’s millennial generation boost their own prospects using the internet technology to transform businesses, and drive entrepreneurship and economic growth (cf. World Bank 2012; Kalan 2013; Dutta et al. 2015).
Today, over 313 million people living in Africa regularly use the Internet (cf. Internet World Stats 2015). The World Bank funded report, eTransform Africa, provides data on the ICT revolution that is taking place in Africa and its transformational prospects on the continent’s development as of 2012.
At the start of 2012, there were some 650 million mobile subscriptions, making the African mobile telephone market bigger than either the EU or the United States. Some 68,000 km of submarine cable and over 615,000 km of national backbone networks have been laid, greatly increasing connectivity across Africa. The Internet bandwidth available to Africa’s one billion citizens has grown 20-fold since 2008 (World Bank 2012).
In a more recent 2015 United Nations Economic and Social Council report on “Digital Development” by the Commission on Science and Technology for Development, it was estimated that mobile broadband and smartphones will be the key driving force of future technology trends in ICTs. With over 200 million millennials between 15 and 24 in Africa, the majority of future technology pioneers would come from Africa’s millennial generation, given that they are the largest population of young people in the world (cf. Ighobor 2013).
Today, a growing number of millennials in Africa are actors in innovation due to internet connectivity. With the growth of internet penetration and connectivity, there are positive stories of Africa’s millennials contributing to internet development through their internet-inspired innovation. Looking across the web, there are hundreds of inspiring success stories from Africa, as we will share just a few.
The story of Chike Maduegbunam, a businessman from Nigeria, and the creator of the popular Afrinolly mobile app, which has almost a million downloads is a good example. With the passion to bring Nigeria’s entertainment industry to the world, Chike’s team developed Afrinolly for this purpose; therefore making it easy for anybody from any part of the world to have access to Nollywood movies through their smartphones.
Another inspiring example is the Funda e-learning platform, a South African-based online learning solution. Funda is argued to have one of the best e-learning platforms created specifically for developing countries. The funda platform has made it possible to “integrate already existing solutions at Universities to take courses online”, says Kola Olajide, the Co-founder and lead engineer at funda during his Spotlight Talks interview with TMAFRICA. Funda is an exceptional e-learning platform because of its user experience that takes account the delivery mechanism, data analysis, and assessments for learners. They currently provide e-learning solutions to Universities in Southern Africa, and gradually dominating the rest of Africa. According to Kola Olajide (2014), “funda works with educators to make sure the content is digitally ready and prides itself in providing a complete solution to the education ecosystem.” The funda technology is so innovative that companies in Europe and America are interested in partnering with their platform, according to Olajide.
Amr Sobhy is another African millennial success story from Egypt, whose technological exceptionalism has propelled change and civic engagement within and across Egypt. After the Arab Spring crisis that led to the removal of the then Egyptian President Mubarak, Amr designed an internet application known as MorsiMeter to monitor the progress and promise of the then new Egyptian President Morsi within his first 100 days in office. For Amr, his connectivity to the internet has allowed him to use the Internet technology to empower people and bring about some sort of civic engagement (cf. Sobhy 2014). Amr hopes to use technology “to practice democracy in a way that is beyond the ballot box”.
Seeing himself as an information activist, Amr had equally used technology to solve other problems that really interest him. In his Spotlight Talks interview with TMAFRICA, Amr admits that he had started other innovative internet projects which according to him are like the different hats that he wears. With his undergraduate background in Pharmaceutical Science, Amr equally developed Dawaa—an online drug index that makes it easy to answer questions related to drug names, doses, brands, and prices. Amr notes,
“I was actually surprised that…in 2014 that the only way to navigate that [drugs names] is through a book and some list of apps that are really out-dated. And that’s because lately it’s a niche problem and no one is interested in solving it. It’s a lot of money, and there aren’t really that many pharmacists out here. It was a really interesting problem for me and I created Dawaa as a weekend project. I created the first digital drug index with a very simple to use interface and it also adds a lot of enhancements to the functionality: like if you want to search by the name and the brand and figure out some information about them, and which is the cheapest and the most expensive. This is something that was not even possible using books.”
Amr is also the creator of PushBots and Zabatek, online tools he developed for not just the Egyptian population but for the world at large.
Other inspiring examples include the Egyptian Nihal Fares who is the co-founder of Eventtus, a social networking app that enables its users to find social events and networking opportunities matching their interests; Tebogo Mogale and Sammy Rabolele’s Beyond The Eyes online TV, which is the first black-owned online TV to come out of South Africa; and Alan Knott-Craig, CEO and founder of Project Isizwe, a start-up bringing free Wi-Fi to South Africans—connecting people for online education opportunities, economic development and social inclusion (cf. TMAFRICA Spotlight Talks, 2014–2015).
Without doubt, access to the Internet and mobile phones are transforming the development landscape in Africa, injecting new innovative opportunities and information in key sectors (Saghir 2013). And more so, creating new actors and change makers of transformative and innovative developments from Africa. Indeed, internet-related developments have empowered millennials in Africa to drive entrepreneurship, innovation and income growth in Africa (Yonazi et al. 2013).
The “constrained” but “innovative” African millennial generation
As we move further, it is important to reiterate the type of internet inequality we are looking at: the lack of usage access/opportunities (Van Dijk and Hacker 2003). The lack of significant usage access to opportunities is the kind of internet inequality, watered by a functionalist worldview, where certain internet services, resources, and intellectual property are restricted to benefit certain privileged online users in the internet ecosystem. Such kind of internet inequality, according to Van Dijk and Hacker (2003), demonstrate that “‘free’ internet access or computer hardware is not really free, of course. There are nominal monthly fees, long-term service agreements, privacy selling and low-quality service, for instance.” (p. 11). Van Dijk and Hacker (2003) further described the reason for this inequality: “It is simply a question of some having the technology now and others having it later. They first pay for the innovation and make later adoption cheaper for the last.” (p.11). The idea of usage access generally points to the various uses of internet applications, which include both the active and creative use of the internet technology. Ghobadi and Ghobadi (2015): 332 list examples of this kind of usage opportunities to include but are not limited to publishing a personal website, creating a weblog, posting a contribution on an online bulletin board, newsgroup or community, and website payment integration. The authors further explained that usage access is “largely linked to demographic characteristics of users and connections (e.g., social class, education, age, gender, and ethnicity, effectiveness of the connection)” (Ghobadi and Ghobadi 2015: 332).
We argue that even though Africa’s millennial generation are connected to the Internet through other means (e.g., psychological access, material access, and skill access, cf. Van Dijk and Hacker 2003), they are yet to realise the full potential of the Internet technology due to the lack of significant usage access to online opportunities.
As we interviewed certain individuals and observed the trends of internet inequality across the continent, two main recursive experiences (acceptability or identity problem and accessibility or participation problem) are salient among millennials in Africa as they engage the online community to participate as actors in innovation. “Acceptability or identity problem” is an undeniably increasing psychological challenge in internet usage access where certain individuals are not accepted in some online communities on the basis of their social or regional identity. On the other hand, “accessibility or participation problem” highlights the salient culture of denying certain individuals the basic human right to participate in some online communities due to certain stereotypical thoughts or beliefs about their identity. We saw these two instances of internet inequality often overlapping with each other, and at some point giving rise to each other. To note, we do not wish to discuss these two forms of internet inequality trends separately, since often times they go hand-in-hand with each other.
Before we continue with the stories, let us first begin with a personal experience one of the authors had in 2013 while living in Nigeria, which actually inspired this paper. Victor is a trained web designer, even though he does not design websites professionally as his main source of income. A friend had asked Victor to assist in providing a web presence for their 5 Star Hotelas they plan on upgrading their services. Victor agreed to help the friend design the website. Victor paid for the web hosting at HostGastor.com using his Guaranty Trust Bank debit card, which he also often use to make online payments from Nigeria. The payment went through successfully. However, the domain was not registered by HostGastor. A complaint was sent to HostGator by Victor using his twitter account on February 14, 2013 (see image below), and HostGastor responded saying, “The domain appears to be currently available as it wasn’t registered due to the lack of follow through on the verification”. The "follow through on the verification" (see screenshot of email below) they were referring to was to send a photo picture of the debit card Victor used for the payment, with a photo of him holding the bank card, and a copy of his International passport or ID—which he did. After waiting for almost a week to approve the domain hosting, HostGastor still delayed on verifying the transaction. The truth was, as one of the HostGator staff told Victor in an honest disclosure, that the company does not accept users from his geographical location on their platform due to fears of Internet fraud since there was a general notion that everyone using the Internet from West Africa was either a fraudster or involved in some kind of identity theft online. On knowing the truth, Victor had to cancel the transaction since it was almost about 2 weeks since the initial payment. It took Victor another 2 weeks to receive a refund.
While trying to bring about innovation in the hospitality business by giving it a web presence, Victor was denied access to host a website on a hosting platform that only serves a specific geographical region. Once again, we see how the functionalist position of internet inequality is structurally formalized in the internet ecosystem, serving only a specific group of users.
Although there are other hosting platforms that are willing to accept payments from Victor's geographical location, a major challenge for innovation among millennials in Africa, as we observed, is having a universally recognized e-payment integration system.
Following an ordeal with PayPal.com, user “Normaljenny” in an online forum discussion on nairaland.com (2012) was seeking advice on how to advance his online business which would require an e-payment processor to complete his new online project. His fears was that while he might be able to create e-payment processors using payza and checkout (which are e-payment systems designed for users from developing countries) the problem was that it would be preferable to use PayPal, since, according to him, “is just too trusted and accepted worldwide”. User Normaljenny has a fiancée in the USA and contemplated asking her to use her Social Security Number to open a new bank account for him so that he could use the details to verify his PayPal account in order to integrate PayPal's e-payment processor into his new business website. Normaljenny equally considered going to a neighboring country like Benin Republic since PayPal was not operating in Nigeria at this time, but available in Benin. Normaljenny is now receiving feedback and recommendations on what to do by fellow forum users. Most of the responders also shared their own PayPal experiences—most of which had very similar storylines. Not to mention Google Checkout, which Normaljenny claimed to have tried, but was locked out and unable to access. In her/his words, “I tried Google checkout and they have only USA and UK as allies and you must verify with credit card “made” in USA or UK, or your tax this and that.”
User Normaljenny complaints on nairaland.com are here captured on the screenshot below.
In particular, while other forum responders shared their own experiences and recommended change of VPN/IP to USA dedicated IP, user “Marvid” in particular does not subscribe to the idea of changing an IP address. Marvid clarifies the situation on the forum challenging other forum users with a question: “If you a Briton and you are living in Nigeria, does that mean you cannot operate your paypal?” Marvid insists that it is not about their IP address but their nationality. See Marvid comments in the screenshot below.
Paypal’s e-payment integration in Marvid’s website seems not to work properly, as seen in the screenshot captured below, showing PayPal’s default checkout response (“This recipient is currently unable to receive money”), which means it is impossible to make a purchase on Marvid’s website. An attempt to open Marvid’s business website (www.marvrid.com) shows that the site is no longer in service; perhaps due to the restriction not to receive payment due to his location. Of what benefit is it to sustain and maintain an online service or business you cannot even receive payment for? PayPal’s refusal to allow Marvid to integrate their e-payment system into his website and thus receive online payments for his business is captured in the screenshot below, as attempt was made to test-run his PayPal payment system by one of the forum users prior to the final shutdown of his online business on marvrid.com.
On the other hand, user “legalwealth” captured the situation of “usage access” in Nigeria with emphasis to PayPal as of 2013 in the screenshot below.
However, PayPal has recently extended their service to Nigeria in 2014 (cf. Nsehe 2014). And within the space of 1 year, the Nigerian PayPal market became the second largest market for PayPal in Africa (cf. Chima 2015; Ventures Africa 2015). Sadly, even with the acclaimed extension, there are still restrictions as to how Nigerian users should use the PayPal payment system.
One of the Nigerian users claimed to have sold some of his products online through the new PayPal system introduced in the country but unfortunately could not receive his money because PayPal is of the position that Nigerian users should not be allowed to receive online payments, even though they can use their PayPal accounts to make payments to other PayPal users. Miskoblog.com notes this in their article as below:
A Nigerian PayPal account can only be used to shop online on merchant sites that accept Nigerians and also to send money to accounts eligible to receive PayPal payments. For example you cannot send money to another Nigerian PayPal account but you can send to a USA PayPal account which is eligible for receiving payments on PayPal (Miskoblog 2014: para. 5).
Compare this claim with the screenshot below (cf. Nairaland.com 2015), as one of the forum users asks how he/she could withdraw money from his/her PayPal account and user “BuddahaPalm” clarifies saying, “Nope….You can’t receive. Potential sender gets a message telling him that as well”.
To put forward, some of the millennials in Nigeria are aware that PayPal has extended their services to the region but other third party PayPal accredited web vendors like Wordpress seem not to have upgraded their system to include “Nigeria” in their checkout database. Timothy Ozovehe (2014) complains in his comment on a Wordpress forum, frustrated trying to pay for a wordpress service but unable to do so since Wordpress, according to him, seems to have a “personal issue with Nigerians”. This is captured in the screenshot below:
Overall, one of the common trend in the discussion forums is seeing many of the online forum users, who at some point serve as advisors, rationalizing that their experiences with PayPal were the springboard that inspired them to create and support new African-initiated e-payment alternatives (e.g., GTBank GTPay, Interswitch InternetPay, eTransact, Simplepay, Cashenvoy, UBA UCollect, Zenith Bank GlobalPay, 2Checkout (2CO), Payza, and Paga) designed specifically for the African market (cf. King 2015). Many of the founders of these new e-payment systems draw their inspiration for starting their own e-paymentcompanies based on the difficulties surrounding online payments in some parts of Africa. African millennial, Simeon Ononubi, founded Simplepay in 2013 after his frustration with Western-based online payment systems like PayPal that do not understand the African market and often think of African e-payment users from the lens of negatives stereotypes. According to Ononubi, in his interview with Muyiwa Matuluko of Techpoint Nigeria, he has this to say, “I don’t believe that you can just borrow something from America and use it in this environment.” (cf. Matuluko 2015: para. 1). With Ononubi’s Simplepay, African users can securely and conveniently make online payments simply by using their email address and bank account as a “sort of reminiscent of PayPal”, Matuluko (2015) claims. Today, Simplepay has over 10,000 registered users monthly (cf. Matuluko 2015) and the company continues to grow as it hopes to reach one million users by the end of 2015 through a grand partnership with the African banking giant, Zenith Bank PLC (cf. Matuluko 2015).
Simplepay seems to excel in a difficult African e-payment market terrain. However, PayPal still wields the upper hand since the PayPal system is universally recognised and respected as a more secure and reliable e-payment system due to its popularity. For millennials who are in desperate need of the PayPal payment system, using the Simplepay e-payment system is just not an option, especially when their client base is in Europe and North America.
Occasionally, we noticed some of the desperate forum users in need of the PayPal system, resort to manipulating their identities in order to gain access to PayPal and sell their products to the Western market, where PayPal is the most trusted means for online payments. We see this in the screenshot below, as forum user “Arewatch” on nairaland.com now beckons on “wanna-be” PayPal users, who are willing to take any risk to get verified PayPal accounts for their online businesses (cf. Nairaland.com 2013).
As we move our attention away from the narratives that support the subtle existence of internet inequality in the internet economy, we now focus our attention back on the stories of millennials who are part of the Third Millennium Africa Project ecosystem and their comments on internet inequality from a broader spectrum. These comments and observations were gathered during the recent Spotlight Talks interviews they had with TMAFRICA, when they were asked to talk about their start-up projects and the challenges they were facing in their different fields.
Kola Olajida, the lead engineer at Funda (an emerging e-learning system) who is originally from Nigeria, in his Spotlight Talks interview (cf. Olajide cited in TMAFRICA 2014), notes how difficult it was for him to start his niche in Nigeria due to the negative stereotype associated with that particular region. He believes that South Africa was a better playing ground for his e-learning project launch, which has recorded some incredible success over the years. But what if Kola could not afford the means to relocate to Cape Town; what could have been of his Funda dream?
Kola is not the only one of our ambassadors who seems to have been a victim to internet inequality. Internet information activist, Amr Sobhy (2014: para.7), equally shares the same concern as he intellectually captures the trend of internet inequality in his Spotlight Talks interview with TMAFRICA:
“When it comes to the entrepreneurial scene in Africa, there are a lot of challenges…the basic challenge is the ecosystem is not as well or as mature as in other continents and in other countries. And sometimes there is actually a huge gap between what we have here as a reality and what exists in other places. It is ok because we need to start somewhere.”
Indeed, the problem with internet inequality is in the internet ecosystem, which is configured to benefit certain regions whereas giving “internet milk” to “internet babies” in other regions. The internet usage access gap between what is obtainable in the internet economy from African countries is far below what is the standard in other places. Amr believes that the internet stakeholders do not see the value in investing in the African market but “They are willing to spend the same amount of money but in more experienced places as investors. Like they don’t want to invest locally, but they are willing to invest 2 to 4 times that money, but in other more mature ecosystems which will not help African entrepreneurs and startups to really grow.” However, we don’t have much of a choice, and like Amr states, Africa “need to start somewhere” (Sobhy cited in TMAFRICA 2014: para.7).
We believe there is an awareness “out there” about what internet inequality is all about, which often points to the deep-seated understanding (or misunderstanding) of internet-generated inequality and online interaction. In fact, building engaging interfaces online can be a daunting task that does not go without encountering some form of inequality or stereotype, especially when surfing from the breadth of Africa.
To put it more clearly, Piragoff (2005) reasons that the way in which virtual communities are organized into predictable relationships, patterns of social interaction (the way in which people respond to each other) are to some extent a precursor to cybercrime (Piragoff 2005:133), and for us, an evidence of the injustice of inequality roaming the internet ecosystem. When access is denied based on one’s identity or a perceived stereotype, a more acceptable but vague identity is often forged to gain access and acceptance as we have seen in the narratives. At the end of the day, nobody actually wins. And this, for us, is the more reason why identity theft is more rampant in the internet economy. Unfortunately, usage access to opportunities and resources on the internet still remains an unbelievable reality and a major challenge facing the future of Africa’s millennial generation.