How Africa can develop a home-grown tech sector

world. In the example of Rwanda, local ISPs who deliver the content to internet users had to pay $13,500 a year more than if they had been able to connect to Africa-based servers, pushing up the costs for everybody.

The problems don’t stop there. Having to connect to foreign-based websites also produces far slower download times. This can be mind-numbingly frustrating for users, which then discourages them from using the sites that perform poorly.

However, the example of China shows that it doesn’t have to be this way. The country’s strict censorship regime has limited the import of foreign websites. This has actually helped produce a number of alternative, locally created and hosted websites. In turn, this has helped the country develop a rapidly growing web-tech industry with giants such as search engine Baidu, online shopping site Taobao, and video site Youku creating a huge capacity for innovation, as well as the related economic benefits.

On moral grounds it is hard to justify encouraging such censorship in Africa. Denying people access to videos on YouTube or the global reach of Facebook seems fundamentally wrong. It would also undermine the idea of net neutrality – that ISPs should provide access to all internet content equally – which many see as a core principle of the internet.

And while many countries throughout history have used trade protectionism to protect their so-called infant industries, the internet is a different beast. Its global nature and the way it can underpin other industries means that limiting foreign websites, even for a few years, may have too many negative effects. Imagine an online business suddenly losing access to eBay.

Positive solutions
Instead of banning foreign sites, we should look for more positive solutions. Proper regulation, infrastructural investment and, most importantly, training are key ways to encourage local innovation. A good starting point would be to look for the types of services that desperately need the local touch. Many of the needs of African users mirror those of other global users. So devising a unique selling point that can break through the competition of the big international players is tricky. Taking the local approach and focusing on the types of services that are not met by the global elite would be an effective way to sidestep this issue.

Luckily, countless examples have begun to emerge, such as Ushahidi, which was designed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the 2008 elections. Services in other emerging economies can also provide inspiration, such as the Indian rickshaw-booking service Autowale. These fantastic examples show innovation at its best: finding solutions to real problems on the doorstep. And from the small seeds of a local start-up, maybe the next global tech giant will grow. By expanding this local expertise and capacity, a foundation is being built for the future. It is only a matter of time before we see an African website among the bookmarks of internet users all over the world.

Gareth Tyson is Lecturer in Computer science, Queen Mary University of London. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation (under Creative Commons-Attribution / No derivative).