I have borrowed the title of today’s piece from the theme of the 2014 edition of Social Media Week Lagos (“A connected Africa is the future”), starting today at multiple venues across the city. ‘Social Media Week’ as a brand is now six years old, and represents events that today take place twice a year (February and September) in 16 cities around the world. The Lagos edition was launched in February 2013, the first in Africa.
There are more than a hundred “official” and “independent” events lined up for the 2014 Lagos Social Media Week, involving a wide range of hosts and participants from government and the private sector. I’m especially excited by the opportunities social and digital media offer forward-looking government agencies to engage with the public and shake off those long-standing perceptions of government as opaque, inaccessible and tech-illiterate. Director-General of the National Broadcasting Commission, Emeka Mba, will be speaking on ‘The Future of Television’ on Monday. (Recall that we’re approaching a June 2015 International Telecommunications Union deadline for switching television transmission from analogue to digital). Also that day, the Minister of Communication Technology, Omobola Johnson, will headline ‘An Evening With Leaders’, an event that will feature a panel discussion “explor[ing] how key institutions are leveraging new media tools for better civic engagement, advocacy, education, information and advisory.” On Wednesday morning at the Co-Creation Hub in Yaba, advocacy group Enough Is Enough, Nigeria will be hosting a session on how technology can improve the conduct of the 2015 elections.
On Friday the Lagos State Football Association will host a combo of panel discussions and night-partying themed ‘Sports Meets Entertainment’. At Social Media Week 2014 there will be sessions on everything you can think of: travel and tourism, the music industry, real estate, advocacy, governance, PR and brand-building, SMEs and entrepreneurship, cities, religion, education, arts and culture, Intellectual Property, youth culture, disaster management, and sports (a full schedule may be found on socialmediaweek.org/lagos); underlining the critical place of the Internet in our 21st century lives. To get a sense of how much things have changed in Africa, consider this: At the time democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999 the continent did not have a single undersea cable bringing high-speed (“broadband”) Internet to it. Today there are at least a dozen undersea cable systems berthed on its eastern and western coasts, flooding it with connectivity. Someday soon the Internet will no longer be a ‘value-added’ idea, something that companies and service providers are encouraged to offer to customers to stay ahead of the competition. The Internet will move from being a nutrition supplement to being ‘air’; where once businesses embraced Internet technologies to stay ahead, they will now be compelled to offer them just to stay alive. Cynics like to dismiss social media and the Internet as having their influence limited mostly to educated youth in urban areas. While there is some truth in that, we should keep a couple of important points in mind. One is that Nigeria has one of the highest rates of urbanisation in the world. Already, from available data, about half of the population lives in urban areas. So all the arguments built around an urban-rural dichotomy should be expected to weaken in the years to come.
Two, Nigeria has one of the youngest populations in the world; an estimated half of its 170 million citizens are under the age of 18. These young people will grow and adapt to the Internet very quickly, regardless of education levels or social class. Indeed, even for older people, adopting and adapting to communications technology appears, from anecdotal evidence, to be a relatively easy experience, as long as the benefits can be easily proven.
The ubiquity of mobile phones (the NCC says there are now more than 120 million active mobile phone lines in Nigeria) means that ‘technology’ is no longer a distant prospect for most people. Today you would expect most adults in Nigeria, regardless of literacy levels, to own at least one mobile phone (a decade ago the most widely available ‘technology’ would have been a transistor radio, which, in terms of sophistication and user-engagement is nowhere near even the most basic of today’s mobile phones). Within a short period of use even a person who has never sat in a classroom will master the basics of using a mobile phone. They will learn to recognise numerals and letters of the alphabet. Eventually, they will try to communicate in text.
Tayo Oviosu, CEO of mobile money firm Pagatech once told the Financial Times about how his foray into mobile banking was partly inspired by a text message he received from his security guard: ‘oga pillis tel yafurn tukom amuf yka’. In case you’re wondering what language that is, it’s English. Or an approximation of it, by someone who has little or no education but understands that in the age of SMS, illiteracy is no excuse for shying away from attempting to communicate Translated into more conventional English, that statement would read: “Oga please tell your friend to come and move her car.” I’m sure many of us have instances of that; text messages in mangled English from drivers and hairdressers and plumbers and vulcanisers, all seeking, and mostly succeeding, in passing information. And these days, even the cheapest mobile phones are likely to be Internet-compatible.
We should therefore expect that the multitude that are today content with struggling with text messaging will tomorrow be accessing the Internet. All those smallholder farmers we dismiss as ‘rural’ people will soon get used to the idea of going online to find weather forecasts and pricing information for their harvests. The government of course has a huge role to play in creating the sort of environment that allows Internet technologies to flourish. Last week I interviewed Communication Technology Minister, Omobola Johnson, on the sidelines of Renaissance Capital’s West Africa Investors Conference. Her Ministry, she says, is working to convince states to reduce the ‘Right of Way” (RoW) fees they charge operators seeking to lay domestic fibre-optic cables. Much of the broadband capacity delivered by the undersea cable systems remains stranded within them (MainOne CEO Funke Opeke said in 2012 that only 5 per cent of the company’s capacity was being utilized), because of infrastructure constraints. For it to reach the homes and offices of the people who need them, it requires “last-mile” infrastructure, which consists largely of cabling which has to be laid underground across cities and towns and villages.
Unfortunately for Nigerians, most state governments charge far too much in fees and taxes, making it difficult for operators to deliver broadband Internet to Nigerians in their homes and offices. Mrs. Johnson says her ministry has recorded a number of successes, in the negotiations with state governments. Not surprisingly, Lagos State is leading the way; the Minister says it has reduced its RoW charges from 4,500 naira per meter to 500 naira per meter.
Oyo State has also agreed to reduce its fees from 5,000 naira to 1,250 naira per meter. What these “model states” have come to realise is that the ‘losses’ from the reduced revenues from RoW fees will be more than offset by the multiplier effect of increased economic activity spurred by a proliferation of high-speed Internet access within their jurisdictions. Mrs. Johnson also says that her ministry has come to an agreement with the Ministry of Environment and the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) to make the process of obtaining Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) more efficient for telcos, with the aim of reducing Nigeria’s base station deficit as quickly as possible. And then there’s also the planned licensing of six ‘Infrastructure Companies’ (InfraCos) to build, on an “open-access” model, fibre-optic cable rings around major cities in all parts of the country. The idea is to unleash the power of the Internet across the entire country as quickly as possible. The result of all these, if pursued to implementation, is that the quality of Internet connections will rise, access prices will fall, more people will be able to get online, and all the industries and sectors that depend on good quality Internet connections (and there are none that eventually won’t) will flourish.
The World Bank has already established a clear link between the rate of broadband penetration, and economic growth.(Nigeria’s new national broadband policy, launched in 2013, seeks to raise broadband penetration in Nigeria five-fold by 2018). By now we should all have come to realise that social media and the Internet – driven to a large extent by the proliferation of mobile phones – are here to dramatically change the way we live our lives. This will happen regardless of what we think or feel about the Internet and social media; and regardless of where in Nigeria we live, how much money we earn, and how much proper English we are able to speak or write.
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