New web tech could help get the next billion Africans online

Web compression and progressive web applications could open the online market for vendors in Africa

Developing countries represent the 94% (PDF) of the global population without internet coverage. Affordability of either devices that can connect to the internet or the data costs have been highlighted as the barriers to online access in these regions.

According to Internet World Stats, Africa has only 28.6% internet penetration as of June 2016. Analysts suggest (PDF) that lack of proper infrastructure mainly in rural areas and prohibitive costs of data have ensured that a big chunk of the continent is left in the dark.

It is only this year in Nigeria that the mobile data plans have started coming down. According to Quartz, US$5 can now buy more data in 2016 than in 2015. In 2015 this would buy on average 0.3 GB of data – now it could get you around 1.5GB.

Just like in Nigeria, competition among the growing mobile phone companies is driving down the cost of data but not fast enough for the majority who live below US$2 a day.

The cost of data has ensured that even those who have feature and smartphones don’t use it. Research suggests that most use of mobile phones is usually non-data due to costs.

Now new technologies could change that by helping Africans access data via their phones without breaking the bank.


Progressive Web Apps

Progressive Web Apps (PWA) are web applications that work like native mobile applications. This means that a mobile web application can be saved on the users’ phone and will be able to work offline, use the operating system’s API (such as camera and microphone) and deliver push notifications.

These new web standards enable developers to create their own web components. Currently most browsers are releasing or preparing to release their products to support web components.

Andreas Bovens, Opera for Android Product Lead said that PWA is a way that developers can escape the vendor lock (such as the mobile app stores) and directly get to the targeted users. Bovens was in Kenya doing a road show with Google to popularise the use of PWA.

“PWAs start out in web browsers, just like normal websites. When a user continuously uses the site, an install banner is shown, allowing users to add the site to their home screens,” Bovens said.

“The average Kenyan user has over 15 apps on his or her phone, most of which require daily and weekly updates, incurring high data costs. PWAs provide the convenience of an app, including push notifications, along with faster speeds and offline support; without the data cost. PWAs also take up less storage space than traditional applications making them ideal for use on budget smartphones.”

Already brands like FlipKart, Konga and Jumia, which operate in developing markets where data reach is low and costly, have implemented PWAs.

Jumia, an ecommerce in Africa, found out that users who enabled push notifications opened those notifications 38% of the time and recovered carts nine times more often than other users. This was enabled by implementing push notifications on their mobile web application.

“We’re closer to our users with web push, because it’s a more personal way to communicate with them. Customers aren’t all willing to download our apps, as they dread the impact on their data bills,” says Jeremy Doutte, Jumia CEO.

“We finally have proper means to address our fastest growing pool of customers— mobile web users. That’s incredibly valuable. We even see better results from web push notifications than from app pushes,” Doutte said.

Nigeria has two-thirds of mobile internet users connecting via 2G networks. This meant that the country had to speed up their service to reach these customers.

Once Konga implemented PWA, they saw a 92% faster initial load of their web app compared to their native mobile application. Customers also used 82% less data to complete the first transaction making it easy for them to buy from the site.

More companies such as news outlets, service providers will benefit from this technology which is easy to implement. In 2015, Google announced its own open source platform, the Polymer Project, built on top of the web component standards to help developers quickly transform their web applications to progressive web apps.

Through their Polymer tool box released this year, developers can also create their own custom web components to be used in the ecosystem.

With these rapid web developments, Bovens is in anticipation of the impact in developing regions.

“We can’t wait to see how PWA technology will shape Kenya’s mobile internet space in the coming years,” he said.


Web compression technology

Wep page compression for mobile phone browsers have been increasing with browsers such as Chrome, UC Browser, Dolphin Browser and Opera Mini introducing web compression to reduce data usage.

Opera Mini reported that it has saved $500,000,000 over 10 months (from January to October 2015) for mobile web users in Africa. This figure is based on an estimate of the amount of money users would have spent on mobile data.

The company also lists South Africa and Nigeria on the top list of those who saved on data costs. South Africa saved around $65 million (R 905 million) over the period, while Nigeria saved a huge $198 million (N 39.5 billion).


Opera says that its browser compression technology lowers data use up to 82% from their experience. The company recently also launched their video compression technology for Android phones.

With data costs being something that African users care about, lowering their internet spend will ensure that they can afford to enjoy more time on the web. According to research by Facebook, on average in Sub Saharan Africa, 53% of the population can afford up to 20MB per month, which only provides one to two hours of web browsing.

Opera says: “Opera Mini shrinks web pages down to as little as 10% of their original size, reducing data consumption by up to 90%. The data compression also helps render web pages faster, even while roaming, or in places with poor network conditions.”

Reduction in data costs have also been buoyed by the introduction of internet exchanges across the continent. It is an expensive affair that only the governments and established IT companies can invest in.

But for business people who are launching services, USSD, SMS, PWA and web compression technologies can push their offerings to those who have instable internet connection or are hindered by the high internet costs, to get the next billion online.