During his trip to Nigeria last week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said he was proud to add Hausa to the language options available to Facebook users worldwide.
Hausa is the main native language spoken in northern Nigeria, and Zuckerberg’s statement could not have been more timely given that native or local languages are necessary for ensuring Internet adoption in sub-Saharan Africa.
Facebook notes that 97 percent of mobile phone users in Nigeria are able to access the social media site. Still, according to a report published by the Internet Society, inhabitants of the region are disinterested by Internet content that is not in their local language despite being encouraged by their governments to speak either English or French.
“The language disparity in sub-Saharan Africa would be expected to present a barrier as Internet adoption attempts to spread beyond high-income earners who are likely to be familiar with government language,” reads the August 2016 report titled “Promoting Content in Africa.”
What this implies is that Internet adoption in the region can only increase if content is understood by its users who promote its uptake through local languages.
Sub-Saharan Africa has six main languages: Hausa, Ibo, and Yoruba are spoken in Nigeria, while Swahili, Lingala, and Zulu are spoken in the rest of the region.
While English as an official government language is spoken by a significant part of the population in Nigeria, Kenya, and Ghana, this is not the case for other African countries.
For example, In Tanzania, about 10 percent of the population speak English. Similarly, 10 percent of the Senegalese population can speak French, according to the report.
Furthermore, the report notes that such local content can only be increased through investment in national and regional distribution platforms, such as websites, social media sites, and mobile software applications.
In particular, there are 76 percent of Whatsapp users in sub-Saharan Africa — mostly driven by South Africa — due to user-generated content in local language. Yet, the statistics are 71 percent and 65 percent for WhatsApp users in the United States and Europe, respectively.
Internet Adoption Rates in Africa
The report also says that 90 percent of the 1.2 billion African population are drawn to the Internet through mobile services. Yet, only 20 percent have adopted the Internet because they are either disinterested or do not understand it.
This is consistent with another report that argues that only 303 million people can access the Internet through mobile services. Mobile internet adoption is 23 percent in sub-Saharan Africa.
Overall, Africa as a continent has the smallest Internet adoption rate notes the report titled “Connected Society: Consumer Barriers to Mobile Internet Adoption.”
Report author Groupe Special Mobile Association adds, “This figure needs to be increased as the Internet is poised to have a transformational effect on economic sectors, such as agriculture, education, health care, and retail in the future.”
While in the past Internet adoption in sub-Saharan African was blamed on infrastructure, this is not the case today. Instead, the International Telecommunication Union argues that there is an increase in infrastructure for accessing Internet, such as submarine cables. This infrastructure has in turn reduced the cost of accessing the Internet.
In addition, there are many benefits to Internet adoption in sub-Saharan Africa. For instance, local developers are able to address the information needs and cultural referents of the people, producing mobile software applications and websites with revenue potential.
Take the case of mobile app iCow in Kenya. Developed by female farmer Sue Kahumbu in 2010 to provide her colleagues with information on how best to rear their dairy cattle at a minimal subscription fee through short messaging services, today, iCow can also be found online through a website and blog, encouraging Internet adoption for its farming audience.
While such information communication technology (ICT) innovations are helpful to Africans, they require funding, and this is scarce for aspiring Internet entrepreneurs.
However, according to the “Promoting Content in Africa” report, ICT innovation hubs in Nigeria, Rwanda, and Kenya are solving this problem. While Rwanda has Impact Hub, Kenya has iHub, which provides seed funding, work space, and administrative support to startups in the ICT field.
The payoff for these hubs and startups are innovations, such as e-commerce and digital payment systems that have a practical use in the daily lives of Africans. The World Bank estimates that there are 117 innovation hubs in Africa, a number that is likely to increase in the future.
There is also a future potential for increased Internet adoption in sub-saharan Africa through platforms that feature local content and languages by more ICT startups, innovation hubs, and established companies.