Mobile Data Is Too Expensive in Sub-Saharan Africa and It’s Holding Women Back

By Kim Harrisberg

WINDHOEK, Namibia, October 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Ruusa Shikwanyu’s fingers move at lightning speed, expertly weaving long braids onto her customer’s head at a market in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia.

Shikwanyu has been braiding hair for 16 years, but her clientele and income have doubled since she began advertising online in 2015, joining a growing number of female entrepreneurs who are using the internet to grow their businesses.

“A friend showed me how to post my styles and products on WhatsApp and Facebook; it’s like having an online resume,” she says, smiling in a small room she shares with a nail beautician and seamstress at the market.

Small business owners like Shikwanyu – who make up almost 70% of Namibia’s informal economy – said internet access has helped them increase sales and given them more financial freedom to raise their children and buy groceries.

Their stories resonate across sub-Saharan Africa, where internet use has skyrocketed from just 1% of the region’s population in 2000 to 30% in 2020, according to World Bank data, spurring new connections and business opportunities.

But even as mobile infrastructure has slowly grown and cheaper smartphones become available, expensive Namibian phone data is consuming a large chunk of users’ income, said independent digital rights advisor Nashilongo Gervasius.

Gervasius said poor telecoms infrastructure and too few service providers in the market are hampering access and keeping prices high.

In a bad month, women can be forced to choose between paying for groceries or paying for dates — and risk losing customers by staying offline, Gervasius said.

Sub-Saharan Africa has some of the most expensive mobile data in the world, according to the Worldwide Mobile Data Pricing 2022 report.

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Namibia ranked 12th from the bottom out of 233 countries in the survey, with a gigabyte costing an average of $10.52 in 2022, compared to average costs of $1.53 in North African countries and $2.47 in dollars in Western Europe.

“When my grandmother recently died, I had to use my money to pay for transportation to her funeral — I had to choose between that and dates,” said Ruth Lazarus, a cashier who started sourcing imported clothes and shoes online last year to sell.

Kim Harrisberg/Thomson Reuters Foundation
Ruth Lazarus scrolls through images of some of the shoes she sells online while sitting at a cafe in Windhoek, Namibia September 24, 2022.

The empowerment of women

Just over half of Namibia’s population has access to the internet, according to internet research site DataReportal, although the Internet Society said only 47% of women are online.

The technology used by online sellers like Lazarus is not complicated.

A friend showed her how to download WeChat, a Chinese instant messaging and mobile payment app, to find Namibians living in China exporting affordable shoes and clothes.

Lazarus then advertises the products on their WhatsApp and takes orders and payments online.

“In a good month of sales, I can go to bed smiling,” said Lazarus from a cafe in a Windhoek mall where she works, while scrolling through her phone and viewing some of the items she was selling.

Africa is a leader in mobile banking, where top telecom operators have become major financial players thanks to their ‘mobile money’ networks, enabling tens of millions to carry out basic banking via mobile phones.

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While the government is building more cell towers and Google recently installed an undersea cable to boost internet connections, many Namibians say the expense and painfully slow internet speeds are leaving them frustrated.

The average download speed on 3G is just 1 megabyte (MB) per second, according to the Communications Regulatory Authority of Namibia (CRAN), an independent regulator that oversees Namibia’s telecommunications services and networks.

This compares to the global average mobile download speed of 29MB per second, according to DataReportal.

“The Internet must be seen as a tool for gender empowerment,” said Gervasius. “Women have so many ideas and products and with the internet they don’t need a physical store anymore but we need to make it more accessible.”

“Right” to the Internet

Namibia’s tiny population is spread across a desert nation one and a half times the size of France that draws tourists from around the world to see its sand dunes, wildlife and ancient rock art.

But rural Namibians say they cannot realize the full potential of tourism without proper internet access to promote their services on social media.

Kim Harrisberg/Thomson Reuters Foundation
Diana Somses, manager of a family-run campsite in Twyfelfontein, poses for a photo at the reception desk in northwestern Namibia, September 29, 2022.

Diana Somses, manager of a family-run campsite in Twyfelfontein in north-western Namibia, is already using almost a fifth of her monthly salary of 1,200 Namibian dollars (US$67) to buy dates that can run out in a matter of days or even hours.

She wants to continue her education online and post pictures of the campsite on Instagram and Facebook to attract new customers and use WhatsApp to confirm bookings.

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“I think we have a right to access those opportunities. We need more customers especially after COVID,” Somses said as she stood behind the site’s reception desk.

Almost three quarters of African youth agree with her.

A study by the charity Ichikowitz Family Foundation has shown that 71% of 4,500 18-24 year olds across Africa believe the internet is a basic human right, but only one in eight can afford coverage at any given time.

The country’s 2009 Communications Act and internet regulator CRAN have proposed a levy on telecom companies for a fund that could help roll out the internet in areas with poor coverage and common spaces like schools and clinics.

But in 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that collecting the levy was unconstitutional, halting the formation of the fund and spurring ongoing court battles between CRAN and largely state-owned telecom companies.

“We’re pretty late into this internet conversation, but now that we’re having it, we need to consciously put the internet where it’s needed most,” Gervasius said.

At the campsite, Somses looked at her phone’s screen while the website she was about to go slowly buffered and showed a loading icon instead.

“When the internet works, it can be a powerful tool — for my studies, for our business… but we need a good network first at a price we can afford,” she said.

(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg. Editing by Sonia Elks. From the Thomson Reuters Foundation) ($1 = Namibian Dollars 17.9910)



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