If you attended enough technology conferences over the past 20 years across Africa, irrespective of what the main theme of the conference is, you would have heard at least one speaker talk about how mobile phones are leading to Internet adoption in Africa or another speaker talk about “500 million mobile phones in Africa!” My favorite over the years is one speaker I forget referring to, back then, the Samsung E250 as the “modern-day AK-47.”

I kid you not.

For me, over and above all this enthusiasm about mobile phone penetration rates in Africa is how well equipped and educated are Africans who are coming online (World Wide Web) for the first time in 2020 via a mobile phone. This is important if we are not only going to create value (laying the foundations) for Africa’s digital economy but capture a good chunk of that value too (make money as Africans, from African consumers).

Although we have suspected for years, we now know beyond any reasonable doubt that if a digital service is free, we are the products. That is, the data the companies collect on us, is what they trade on. With that in mind, you have to ask why so many Big Tech companies are interested in offering free Internet and free digital literacy programs across Africa.

You might think this is a trivial question but is very important. There have been several studies done that illustrated that many people in developing countries, including across Africa, who accessed the Internet via Facebook’s zero-rated program didn’t know they had accessed the Internet. In some cases, they confused Facebook for being THE INTERNET.

This, in my humble opinion, is not by accident.

Big Tech companies like Google and Facebook have deliberately and intentionally over the years approached various developing countries to offer their citizens, most of whom have no idea what the Internet is, “free Internet access” and “free digital literacy” training. Typically these programs are limited to each company’s offerings and do not give users access and literacy on the real Internet and its possibilities. At the end of the day, if we are being brutally honest, such programs are user onboarding exercises in markets which are their last hope for future growth.

Some have argued that such programs are better than nothing. I would argue differently.

If we are to have a vibrant, diverse, and growing digital economy across Africa we don’t need Big Tech at the forefront securing their futures by disguising their user onboarding exercises as free Internet and free digital literacy. All this does is that once a person who only knows Google or Facebook as THE INTERNET, they become comfortable carrying out everything they do online via these platforms. Whether it be shopping, online meetings, etc., because they don’t know the Internet outside these “walls.” The worst part is we are stunting the potential growth of African innovators and startups.

Some services should be for the common good and not the responsibility of private companies.

Quote of the day

There is evidence that schools in Nigeria lack the curriculum necessary to expose children to digital skills, information literacy, and opportunity. (Tweet this)

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