With the arrival of broadband, sub-Saharan Africa’s tech entrepreneurs are on the verge of take off. Question is: to where?

Computer Cafe, Nairobi, Kenya

Photo Credit: White African

In Buea, southern Cameroon, the tech boys are pulling an all-nighter. Mambe Nanje Churchill’s fingers go hurtling across the keyboard. With his 20-year-old junior looking on, the 24-year-old self-taught veteran of the local cyber café scene deftly reworks a website banner.

It ain’t rocket science, but it pays.

Popular with students at the town’s university, the 60 or so cafés straggling along the streets on the green slopes beneath Mount Cameroon have become informal centres for incubating tech entrepreneurs.

The cafés provide a testing ground for novice techies. Regulars can pick up the basic tech skills needed to become front-of-house cyber attendants. Those sharpest at dealing with customers’ queries go on to become café managers. Those geeking out to the hardware become the network trouble-shooters. And the brightest and the best, those with an eye on the big dollar rewards, on emulating Silicon Valley, convert their tech know how into ambitious business plans.

At $100 a pop, Churchill’s Afrovision Group designs, hosts and manages websites across Cameroon and Africa. His five-strong team of young software developers has plans to build an African social media platform.

“Africans like the idea of community, knowing about each other, talking about each other,” Churchill explains. “The collaborative net, Web 2.0, fits well into our culture.”

Wiring up a continent

Churchill’s big problem is that this social capital needs a nudge to go liquid, to go online. He needs customers eyeballing adverts on Afrovision’s websites. But the cafés charge customers around 80 US cents per hour. That’s expensive for Cameroon; the average income is just $2,300 per year. As a result, the average student can only afford to go online for around four hours a week.

How to make broadband affordable for ordinary Africans? It’s becoming Africa’s key development question. How best to create the tech market to support entrepreneurs like Churchill? To support the big tech corporations of Silicon Valley?

The answer – by thinking big: a multi-million dollar international race to wire up the continent to the Internet via tens of thousands of kilometres of undersea fibre-optic strands.

Africa used to be one of the least connected parts of the world. Accessing the Internet depended on expensive and unreliable satellite connections.

Overcoming technical and political obstacles, international financial institutions like the World Bank and then the big global telecom companies set out plans for networks of undersea cables stretching across the oceans. They started building the tech infrastructure needed to bring Africa’s billion consumers and producers to market.

The number of cables serving Africa has shot up from none to seven over the last year and a half – with four rivals snaking over from Europe and the Mediterranean in the past six months alone. By 2012, Africa should have 12 undersea cables.

Brian Herlihy, heading the consortium of Africa states and telecom companies responsible for laying down the $600 million Seacom cable, has predicted that the cables will lead to an “African technological revolution”.

With broadband prices set to crash, the number of broadband users in Africa could increase from 2.5 million to 24 million users by 2011, according to Delta Partners, an investment firm for media and technology in the Middle East and Africa.

And then a boom time for African entrepreneurs like Churchill?

Open for sale

Russell Southwood, editor of the Balancing Act African telecoms newsletter, says that as broadband becomes ubiquitous, the key to Africa’s tech future will increasingly turn on making the new commodity pay for itself.

If the cash isn’t coming in from high broadband prices, the only other way is by charging for services and applications. The key question will become: what’s Africa offer to the Internet?

“Whereas it’s relatively easy for Europe to go ‘post-industrial’ and to make use of what you might describe as thinkwork, services of various kinds, adding value to fashion and design, it’s much more difficult to see how Africa will make those things work for it,” says Southwood.

“But I can’t believe that there won’t be a very large African fashion industry within ten years. I can’t believe that the film and music that come out of the continent won’t have a much larger global presence than it does thus far.”

Global call centre

But there’s a way to go yet. Africa’s first broadband-fuelled foray into the global e-market relies less on thinkwork, more on gruntwork. Africa is setting itself up as an outsourcing destination.

In Nairobi, Kenya, Lucy Mwatibo, director and founder of Ken-Tech Data, which specialises in providing foreign companies with call centres and outsourcing services, says her business has grown amazingly because of broadband.

Three years ago, Mwatibo paid $360 a month for a 128 kilobits per second connection. Internet telephony was impossible. Even data transfer made business difficult, says the 29-year-old Information Technology graduate.

“Sometimes the net would just cut out. At the best of times, the connection was up and down and very slow. And so business suffered. Sometimes you wanted to send something to a client, but had to wait for two or three hours for the net to come back up.”

Since the fibre-optic cables first switched on, as well as getting an Internet that works, Mwatibo’s broadband costs have gone down dramatically – from $3,000 per megabit to around $300.

As a result, Ken-Tech Data has new Indian investors; the number of employees has grown from 10 to 81. Mwatibo is taking on local university students to fill the company’s new purpose-built 150-seat call centre.

Future opportunities

With broadband in place, expect African outsourcing to become increasingly important – at least for those states with the human capital needed for competition at a global level. The Kenyan government expects to see the number of its citizens working on subcontracts for foreign companies increase from 8,000 to 120,000 by 2020.

Other African states hope to follow Kenya’s example. Ghana wants to create 40,000 jobs in the outsourcing sector by 2015. Rwanda is hoping to become a regional telecoms hub, a “Singapore of the Great Lakes”.

But Africa has some catching up to do. Two million Indians already work in outsourcing; India controls some 65 percent of the sector. African states need to ramp up their tech and business infrastructures, improve general education levels and enhance overseas links with potential US and UK and/or French customers.

In any case, outsourcing isn’t the stuff of Silicon Valley dreams. Critics argue that Africa’s brightest and best can do better than play a bit part in the global factory. Innovation is hardly going to happen in a call centre. Don’t Africa’s cyber cafés – as demonstrated by Churchill – represent the kind of creative environment where good ideas happen? Isn’t that where Africa’s Web 2.0 will be unleashed?

But perhaps better the safety of outsourcing to the relative anarchy of the cyber cafés? According to some US security analysts, the cafés pose a deadly threat to the rest of the world. Africa’s old and unpatched computers are likely to fall victim to viruses: its zombie computers, lashed together into vast botnets, under the control of transnational organised crime syndicates, will be the conduit for global cybercrime on an unprecedented scale.

Scaremongering? While agreeing that cybercrime is a growing problem, Ethan Zuckerman, fellow of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the University of Harvard, fumes at the “alarmist speculation” over African cyber cafés:

“Yes, more internet users mean more unpatched computers… but we’ve got a massive wave of zombie machines coming online in every corner of the world. There are vastly more infected Chinese computers – and probably more infected American computers – than there are total machines in sub-Saharan Africa at present.”

From cyber cafés to call centres and perhaps to crime hubs – but at least sub-Saharan Africa finally has a tech future.

Southwood’s take is that major improvements always have consequences. He points out: “The possibility that African cybercrime will become the thing to worry about is a sign of Africa’s success, not a sign of failure.”

A version of this appears in the July issue of Bspirit, the Brussels Airlines magazine.