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Picture: 123RF/TEOH CHIN LEONG
Picture: 123RF/TEOH CHIN LEONG

May 25 was Africa Day, and for all the talk of the global reach of the internet and the rapid spread of mobile networks across Africa, the fact is that 59 years after the formation of the AU in 1963, there are still tens of millions of Africans who can’t even make a phone call.

How many? According to the World Bank, two in every three people in Sub-Saharan Africa are on the wrong side of the digital divide. And even for those who are within reach of connectivity, it’s often so prohibitively expensive that they can’t use it anyway.

The internet may have democratised many things, but it hasn’t broken down the barriers between the haves and the have-nots. Mobile internet availability has increased significantly across the region, but as the International Finance Corporation points out, uptake remains a problem.

In theory, 70% of the regional population have access to mobile internet. In reality, about a third are using it. This uptake gap affects the poor and vulnerable the most: the elderly, women, and rural households. If anything, the digital divide is growing. And it’s not a technology issue, it’s a social issue.

In Africa there’s an additional layer of complexity. As many as 50 countries across the continent now require potential mobile phone users to register their SIM cards using their formal identity documents. This effectively locks out millions of people in marginalised groups, like ethnic minorities or migrant workers, who have no proof of identity. Without a SIM card they can’t make phone calls, let alone benefit from mobile connectivity. Solving this identification issue is just another challenge on the road to connecting the continent’s people.

We all know the benefits of being connected. For one, if more people could communicate with each other it would drive a new wave of economic transformation in Africa, and help create more jobs for its people. More people would be able to get skills, access markets, and be economically active. Poverty would be reduced, and the continent would be able to take its rightful place at the top tables of the world.

So, how do we solve for the basic human need of communication, even if only voice telephony? How do we bridge the physical distance between millions of people across the continent and their families and loved ones without having access to the internet or a mobile network?

Mobile calls are too expensive for most. Free calling apps generally require internet access (and often, a smartphone). And if you think peer to peer (app to app) services like WhatsApp calls are free, you’ve clearly never tried making — or receiving — a call when your airtime has run out.

One solution is seeing Africans building their own decentralised internet infrastructures in villages and towns to connect the unconnected. But here regulatory challenges remain a major obstacle.

Another answer, which is connecting a growing number of people across the continent, lies in a technology that has almost been forgotten in the modern world of 5G and LTE networks: voice over internet protocol (Voip).

Interestingly enough, providing the ability to make a voice call isn’t the biggest challenge. The greater barrier is to find a way to allow potential users to access the platform. They either don’t have online banking to buy airtime or their local currencies or payment methods are simply not supported. That’s why the solution needs a second element to make it fly: a universal payment platform, which lets users buy products and services using any currency or payment method.

Once that platform is in place it won’t just unleash a new wave of connectivity across the continent: it will also bring basic financial services to millions of underserviced people. Then, perhaps, we can start addressing the digital divide that keeps so many Africans out of the mainstream. And they may even be able to phone home once in a while. Now that’s a goal worth striving for.

• Hiine is cofounder & Africa director at international calling app Talk360. 

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