Mali left behind as African internet speeds surge forward
Throughout Bamako, Mali, internet office spaces sit idle. Customers can plug in their computers, make phone calls, and take advantage of the solar-powered electricity that’s not subject to blackouts, a common occurrence in the capital. The one thing they can’t do, however, is check their email.
“We had to shut down this year because we’re not able to provide internet connection for our co-workers. Besides that, the lack of bandwidth, this poor connection is not even working any more,” says Renaud Gaudin, the head of Jokkolabs Bamako, one of the internet open spaces in Mali’s capital.
“We can’t even ask people to come and work in an environment when they know they can’t even read their mails,” he says.
While Bamako is fighting to get into the 21st century, the average user can’t even update their website.
“We’re a business, relying on the internet. Without the internet we cannot make a living. Those who start up businesses today, their activities are stifled because of the internet. Not only is the internet expensive, but if you want to upload a video on your website, and you don’t have a better connection, you cannot compete, especially at the regional level,” says Tidiane Ball, a fellow co-working space businessman in Bamako who owns Donilab.
He said that his Malisante.net website, which provided health news and information, is not functioning any more because it has become impossible to update it.
Gaudin says the problems are twofold—the price for the service hasn’t gone down, and the lack of competition in Mali means that the service hasn’t been upgraded.
State-backed operator Malitel offers fixed-line internet connectivity and has 4 per cent of the market. Mali Orange offers WiMAX, which could be described as long-range WiFi, and has 96 per cent of the market. But the bandwidth available for consumers leaves something to be desired.
As a workaround, these internet entrepreneurs are forced to daisy chain mobile phones together, gathering the data connection from several devices, enabling them to provide a semblance of internet.
Internet customers are paying for speeds that are incapable of downloading a youtube video, all for the price of 36,000 CFA (55 euros) per month. According to the US State Department, the average wage for a semi-skilled worker in Mali is 40,000 CFA (61 euros) per month.
“But our problem, as the regulator, is that we cannot force an operator to lower the price,” says Issa Camara, the manager of the Malian Telecommunications Regulation Authority (AMRTP), Mali's IT regulator. “What we can do is boost competition. I mean, open the market to others so they can make it better, boost competition, and give licenses to other operators. That’s what we can do.”
Camara says that there is a third operator who has been granted a license but the company, who he does not identify, hasn’t put the infrastructure in place yet. Gaudin predicts it will take at least another two years for the new operator to be up and running.
In a study put out last week by Washington DC-based TeleGeography, an international telecommunications market research and analysis firm, African internet leads the world in capacity growth. Growth worldwide is slowing down, but the continent growth-wise is ahead by 41%.
Growth in internet capacity has not been transferred to regular customers yet, says Patrick Christian, a senior analyst with TeleGeography.
“It’s natural that there may be a little delay between when it’s available on the wholesale side to the retail side, but we are seeing a lot of changes on the wholesale side. We’re seeing a whole lot more connectivity available, but where we’re seeing the slowdown right now is on the retail side,” he says.
“The prices haven’t dropped yet. It may be an issue of not enough competition if you only have two companies that are providing service,” he adds.
When making comparisons to other landlocked countries in West Africa, Mali still falls behind. On the Jokkolabs Bamako website, Bamako entrepreneur Gaudin makes the price comparison that shows it is only ahead of Niger and Guinea.
“The real problem in Africa, or the challenge, is getting all the bandwidth that is available in to the country. There are a lot of structural problems building out the network, etc, and there is a lot of cost involved in upgrading your network,” says analyst Christian.
The difference in service between landlocked countries and countries that line the coast of West Africa is disparate.
In 2010, two sea cables, Glow and Main One were constructed along the west coast, from Europe to Nigeria, says Christian. “This started to add some international balance to the area, but the more important cables were ACE, Africa Connect Europe, and WACS, West Africa Cable System.”
By 2013, a lot of international bandwidth was available, but it remained on the coast. “The difficult part is actually getting this bandwidth back, even within the coastal countries, but also into the centre of the landlocked countries,” he says.
Oddly enough, last November, the government announced that it wanted to make Bamako a sub-regional IT hub.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous. Because it’s impossible to even imagine that in five years that Bamako is going to attract anybody who wants to work in IT,” says Gaudin. “There is absolutely no capability for business, for an IT business to live and prosper in the Bamako environment,” he adds.
Burkina Faso is vying for the same thing. “Burkina Faso actually has a lot of onward connectivity from the various sub-cables—through Ghana, through Benin, through Cote d’Ivoire,” says Christian. Burkina Faso is already offering onward connectivity to Niger.
“They’re trying to become an IT hub to the land-locked countries in the area,” he says.
Mali has connectivity through Maroc Telecom’s fibre optic system, while the Mali Orange connection is through Senegal Orange through to ACE, the African Connect Europe cable, says Christian. He says the bandwidth is available, and has been since the beginning of 2013, but he points out that TeleGeography concentrates only on the wholesale side, not the retail side. “And things are happening on the wholesale side,” he says.
Gaudin, meanwhile, is not taking this sitting down, especially because he is losing money as his internet business was forced to close due to lack of connection. He gathered other like-minded cyber entrepreneurs to create the #Mali100mega hashtag and website to get out the word on the slow internet.
They decided to write to the Ministry of Digital Economy, the commission for water, for energy, industry, mines, artisans, tourism, technologies and the National Assembly. They got no response. From anyone.
RFI tried to repeatedly contact Choguel Kokala Maiga, the Minister of Digital Economy, but received no response.
“Everything regarding the internet, its prices, its regulation, everything is so bad, the information doesn’t get out. When you go to Orange, they say it’s the fault of the government, when you go to the government he says it’s the fault of Orange, and so on,” says Gaudin.
“We’re struggling to compete in the sub-region, let alone at international level,” says internet entrepreneur Ball.