What is the impact of Africa's (many) internet shutdowns?

“When things like this happen and they just ban the internet which is the source of my livelihood, I just feel like maybe I made the wrong decision. Maybe I should just leave the country like my friends and never return again,” Churchill Mambe an IT entrepreneur was quoted as saying in MGAfrica in the midst of this year’s internet shutdown in Cameroon.

Mambe is one of the millions of Africans who have experienced government crackdown. Many young internet entrepreneurs are also the counting losses as their businesses grind to a halt.

Cameroon shut down the internet in January after a citizens’ revolt in the English-speaking regions of the country. This led the government to blackout the network in English speaking regions of the nation to try and stem dissenting voices.

Internet shutdowns due to politics are a common occurrence and even when done with supposedly ‘good intentions’ these shut downs are rolling back the gains on the businesses and companies setting up internet connections. Currently Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville, Chad, Uganda, Gabon, Egypt, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Niger and Democratic Republic of Congo have forced shut downs with fears that Kenya could join the fray.


What is the impact on businesses?

With many companies embracing digital methods of doing business, internet shut downs interrupt communications, digital document access, banking services and ERP services. Some shutdowns have been to specific internet sites like social media platforms and mobile chat applications.

Speaking at a NexTech Africa conference in Nairobi, Ben Roberts, CTO at Liquid Telecom, told a story about a government that ordered an internet shutdown but immediately realised the impact of the move:

“In one country where we did have a shutdown imposed by the government, they told us to shut down the whole thing [internet], and we did just that. Two hours later they told us to turn it back on. There was a company drilling oil in the country and complained that they could not send data back to their offices,” Roberts said.

Even so, Nic Rudnick, who is the CEO of Liquid Telecom, added that many businesses have been affected in the region. Liquid Telecom primarily operates in Africa’s inland countries and has had several run-ins with shutdown orders.

Chris Lwanga, Principal PM Manager, PACE at Microsoft said at the same event, “I personally think they should never shut down a network, but if they were to shut down a network they should do it like in western countries where they can shut down a site, one entity, as opposed to the entire network.” Even so, shutdowns of specific sites should be the last resort.

“I think that’s where we need to progress as a continent. These are some of the things we hope that the AU (African Union), UN (United Nations) and several international organisations, will continue to progress in policy so we stop this business of shutting down entire networks,” he added.


What is the cost of internet shutdown?

The business loss in internet shutdowns in Africa has been quantified by Brookings Institute and Global Network Initiative (GNI). GNI said that the Ethiopian internet shut down in October 2016 cost the country US$500,000 per day in GDP.

Brookings Institute [PDF] estimated that Morocco lost US$320 million, Republic of the Congo lost US$72 million, and Egypt lost US$90 million in their down times.

In a report titled The economic impact of disruptions to Internet connectivity [PDF] Brookings Institute and Deloitte documented the cost that internet shutdowns could have on a country’s economy.

“When temporary shutdowns and throttling are implemented repeatedly over time or for longer periods, their impacts on businesses and people can be larger than those associated with one-off disruptions,” the report said.

It added that, “For example, recurring and longer term disruptions can shift consumers’ behaviours and firms’ business models to less optimal alternatives. Furthermore, these disruptions contribute to a higher level of uncertainty in the business environment and may affect investment, purchasing decisions and business confidence.”

The report also states, “A temporary Internet shutdown in a high connectivity country is estimated to have a GDP impact per 10 million people per day of $23.6 million on average. The average impact in a medium connectivity and low connectivity country would be an estimated $6.6 million and $0.6 million of GDP respectively on average.”


Is connectivity a human right?

In June last year, the United Nations [PDF] stressed that the right of expression through the internet should be respected across its participating countries.

“Noting that the exercise of human rights, in particular the right to freedom of expression, on the Internet is an issue of increasing interest and importance as the rapid pace of technological development enables individuals all over the world to use new information and communication technologies,” the UN said.

The UN was concerned by the measures that governments have put in place to intentionally disrupt access to information online, which it termed as a violation of international human rights law.

Nic Rudnick from Liquid Telecom suggested that making internet access a human right would deter governments from interrupting connectivity.

If such endorsements are adopted by countries in Africa, then spontaneous internet shutdowns will be a thing of the past.

But with the prevailing environment, the trust businesses have in adopting cloud services and entirely running their operations digitally could be eroded. This could slow down the digital economy at every election cycle across the continent.

While on the flip side, any government which has tightly integrated its process with digital tools could work as a self-deterrent against closing down the entire network.


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Vincent Matinde

Vincent Matinde is an international IT Journalist highlighting African innovations in the technology scene.

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