The first tablet cafe in the world just opened its doors in…not New York, Oslo, or Shanghai, but Dakar. The cafe provides low-cost internet access to the Dakarois (it costs about $.60 for an hour of access) in a format that is amenable to the frequent power outages that plague Senegal’s rapidly growing capital. Smart. The business relies on tablets with long battery lives and the indefatigable power of 3G, which believe it or not, works even in the remotest of wildlife reserves in Malawi. The cafe is also bringing down its own costs by decreasing energy consumption.
(Aside: In time, a new idea out of one of Nairobi’s many tech-start ups may help this cafe run on wifi and bring down 3G costs as well. The concept is an Africa-friendly modem, with a battery built-in and the ability to switch between wifi and 3G when a fixed-line network fails.)
As Africa’s middle class continues to grow at a dizzying clip and cities like Dakar go from quaint colonial capitals to crowded urban centers, the continent’s relationship with technology is moving from One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) disasters to the latest Huawei Androids running on 3G, designed with African markets in mind. The driving factor in the tech revolution in Africa today is not donor money, but private investment and interest.
This tablet cafe in Dakar opened its doors with funding from Google. It is part of Google’s move to expand internet access across the region. In this particular case, Google hopes to help make it more profitable for a business to offer affordable internet access by providing the capital for tablets that will lower electricity bills in the long-run. Additionally, Google hopes that the technological newcomer will find the tablet interface more user-friendly than a standard PC, and therefore return to the web more regularly.
Here is Google’s strategy in the sub-Saharan region:
The Internet is a powerful source of information. Google’s strategy in Africa is to get more users online by developing an accessible, relevant and sustainable internet ecosystem.
Reducing access as a barrier to all potential users
Making the Internet relevant and useful to Africans
Helping strengthen an Internet ecosystem in Africa that is vibrant, and sustainable and self-sufficient in the long-term
Google’s effort to expand internet access in Africa strikes me as an ideal case of public and private needs lining up. As Google works to bring more people online, they open new markets to their advertising and products. On the public good side, it is true that this kind of investment helps only those who have already been educated and are earning enough to afford sophisticated phones and internet access–and to read what they can access with these tools, for that matter. However, seeing a private company work to expand internet access in Africa is encouraging. Even if this internet access doesn’t reach the same remote village in Rwanda where 1,000 OLPCs are rusting in a classroom without electricity, giving the middle and upper classes more opportunities to get online leads to more open societies, better news coverage, and with time, the kind of government accountability and informed public that so many countries sorely need.
I recognize the irony in writing about the expansion of internet access in Africa from a country where 93 percent of the population doesn’t have access to the power grid. Which is by way of saying, we have a long way to go between the haves and the have-nots in the African tech world. Here’s hoping that we see a tablet cafe in Blantyre, Malawi soon, and hopefully with the same great sweet tea and croissants found in Dakar.