The World Wide Web had its 29th birthday on March 12th and co-founder of the web, Tim Berners Lee, is warning us of increasing unequal web access in the years to come. He is raising concerns for the further monopolization by a few super-platforms. A few days ago Google changed its advertising policy for Cryptocurrency projects, following the earlier ban by Facebook in January. Net neutrality is more and more at stake. The web includes about half of the world’s population now, and the questions Berners Lee poses is how to reach the other half and with what kind of internet? Can innovative blockchain-based projects make a change and create a neutral alternative for the centralized WWW-titans ? And above all, what does it take to make internet cheaper and affordable for the 50% of not-haves?
The UN stated that in their Threshold for affordability 1GB of mobile data should be available for less than 2% of average monthly income. Let’s have a closer look at Africa. It’s the continent with the highest potential growth rate when it comes to people getting online. In 2020 it will have 725 million mobile phones, about the same amount as in Europe. But what does that mean in terms of bringing a poor part of the world to the net? In Rwanda provider Tigo offers a 4G phone connection of max 30 GB for 40.000 RWF ($50) per month. Bear in mind that the average income is around $120 a month. You can also get 3G by MTN, a sheer 90 GB for about $30,- a month. A vast majority of the people that own a smartphone, however, top up their data and airtime in amounts of 1000 RWF ($1,2), which gives them 750 mb for a week.
Rwanda is also referred to as the Switzerland of Africa when it comes to IT-infrastructure and logistic infrastructure. In our recent travel through Rwanda for meeting ThreeFold farmers and investors, it was an amazing experience to drive on European standard roads. Newly built, and used by thousands of people: on foot. Women are sweeping the roads, the country needs to be clean, and it is! But there are only a few cars using the roads. The same can be said about the fibre connections being dug into the country, to connect its 11.5 million population to high-speed wifi. The 4G for $50,- is probably at this moment only used by expats, governments and a top layer of relatively wealthy Rwandan entrepreneurs. In a 2016 report, Rwanda came out first as the country with the most affordable Internet access in emerging regions, compared to 52 other countries. Affordable meaning: at a rate of 40% of the average income when you really need the high speed connection. Think about paying $1200,- monthly for a limited 4G data bundle when you make net $3000,- a month. Say no more.
In Africa, you need to go to the basics first. You need to understand the situation for the majority of the people, to see the big gap between the aspirations of the leaders, and the reality of its people. Food costs about 40 cents a day in Rwanda, charging your phone: 20 cents. Not to mention the time it takes to walk to the nearest charging kiosk. Only 31% of the people have electricity. This is explained to me by Humanitarian and entrepreneur Nathanael Hollands in Gisenyi, a post-colonial town at Lake Kivu on the border of the Congo. We sit down in a small office in his Calafia Café by the lake.
“You need to find ways to keep electronic prices low in Africa and these products need to be designed and assembled locally for them to be affordable” Nathanael reveals to me while sitting at his desk filled with his latest inventions in progress: a self made easy to repair battery pack, his Moto usb charger, cables and relays. The majority of inhabitants are low income farmers, but most of them have a phone, or even two, because networks are unstable and sending text and call to the same carrier saves a lot of money.
So, that’s IT for Africa in a nutshell. Expensive electricity when connected at all and providers that follow a pyramid structure of Western mostly greed based companies. On the upside though, there are very promising startups that dream of connecting bigger amounts of people with innovative and technical solutions. Most of them start at community level. Mobile units in Kenya brought by BRCK bring free wifi, an inbuilt screen to watch youtube, usb hubs to charge your phone. Akirachix in Kenya empowers women by providing a training platform. Or KLab in Rwanda, a startup accelerator that won many prizes. In Nairobi you have IHub, the same idea.
In many of those startups, Google is involved, or any other of the top 5 data providers like Microsoft in the case of Akirachix. At some point, the startup might be bought by the monopolist, the talent moves to Europe or the US, and nobody gets empowered except for the pockets of the founders and some friends and family. Technological innovation that has the intention to reach a lot of Africans gets slowly hijacked by big foreign companies. I don’t want to advocate that all those startups don’t help and the founders have wrong intentions. But it seems to be the drama of Africa: a post colonial extraction of talent and money from a sector that is probably the only potential and hope to empower the people with technology and access to the world wide platform of information and knowledge. The West has built structures to steal from the poorest in the world, a downward shame, and now the IT sector is becoming the next vehicle for more theft.
And then came the Blockchain. Nathanael points out to me that once the basics are solved, meaning electricity made cheaper and easily available, and then cheaper internet access, blockchain can play a crucial role in transforming Africa into a truly empowered, connected and educated presence in the world. He has already produced an USB charger for the many Moto taxis in the country. His latest contribution in incubation state is a thermoelectric charger designed for charcoal stoves. Brilliant! It takes 4 hours to cook beans, and meanwhile you charge your phone for free. When we start talking about blockchain, he really gets excited. “Currently there are only few people in Rwanda that understand the potential in blockchain technology, and the use cases are limited in many developing countries”. We talk about Blockchain based cryptos that could substitute hyper inflated currencies like the Zimbabwe dollar. Problem here: the current fluctuations in value pose the same problem as the home currency, it provides a too unstable base for people to rely on. A loaf of bread bought by bitcoin can follow the volatile temper of this supercoin and be suddenly 10% more expensive during the act of purchasing.
We arrive back at the same point: affordable internet access. Then people actually can start to earn more. There are crypto projects that offer a solution. One of them is ThreeFold. At the core, ThreeFold is building an ecosystem of supercheap storage and computing capacity by using container technology, self healing built on a zero-platform. Let’s make this not too complicated , you can read the technical solution in their white paper, but by bringing mini data centers as close as possible to the end user, using a disruptive close to the edge technology, it is possible to offer any person in Africa everything one would want (social media, watching videos, storage, communications) for $ 0.50 a month. The biggest data centers, the ThreeFold containers, are solar powered. When the phone can be charged for free, a lot of money is potentially saved at the user’s end as well. A completely new experience would open up, broadening the horizon, connecting people for almost nothing. One crucial condition needs to be accomplished: a third party provider has to step in and embrace the values of standing up for information access equality in order to enrich our entire world.
Leaders of most African countries have indebted themselves infinitely to the American Dollar, for building clean roads and pushing the country towards Western standards, by importing Western products, including arms. One way to stop this strategy of debt strangulation, is to get more empowered money wise from within, using the most valuable resource: communities. A cheap, neutral and distributed internet access can potentially be the key factor to bring fundamental change. People can educate themselves, start online businesses, organize themselves better, increase their self worth by being connected to an international platform and also raising their net worth. The vision is there: Rwanda is the first country in the world that transports blood from hospital to hospital by drone. It made a program to give every student a $100,- laptop, on a loan with interest. ICT is high on the agenda, budgets are available, more and more clever startups will come. But when the core infrastructure of extracting wealth from those innovations by the ‘owners’ of the internet and their huge data centers doesn’t change, nothing changes in effect. When communities get stronger on an income level, when the money stays in the country, the leaders are offered a stronger incentive to further support the infrastructure, broaden the electricity and internet grid, and become less dependent on multinationals.
It appears that the only way to start to empower poorer countries is by starting to empower their communities first. Green, cheap and non controlled internet might be the way. You can support this vision by supporting the ThreeFold community and its green, neutral and distributed ecosystem by becoming a farmer, or buying tokens. ThreeFold is a non for profit foundation and we believe in doing good for the world. Our underlying values of love, respect and transparency, the architecture of the ecosystem and the underlying blockchain will prevent de facto, that we become at any given point in time, a new pyramid structured corporation.
Lucien Lecarme, march 13th, 2018