Tanzania's invisible web revolution
- 2 October 2012
- From the section Africa
East African governments are in the grip of internet fever. They have built thousands of miles of fibre-optic cable and intend to connect even the most remote villages to super-fast broadband. So is the web really transforming their lives?
Ninety minutes drive north of Tanzania's main city, Dar es Salaam, on rough roads through shanty towns and dusty villages, is the town of Bagamoyo.
It is a bustling chaotic place packed with low-rise shops and houses, most with corrugated metal roofs.
The town has an arts institute, attracts a trickle of tourists, and there are internet cafes on most streets. It is an ideal place to assess the early signs for the government's ambition to bring super-fast broadband to the masses.
Tanzanian borrowed $170m (£105m) from the Chinese government and raised a further $80m to build a vast fibre-optic cable network, stretching 7,500km (4,600 miles) in a ring around the country.
It hopes to transform Tanzania into a tech powerhouse to rival its neighbour Kenya, which built a smaller network more quickly and is already regarded as the regional hub for technology.
But there are already worrying signs for the government. The people of Bagamoyo are concerned that the government is doing too little to promote its vision.
Rehema Nzige, who teaches Information and Communications Technology (ICT) at Bagamoyo's Institute of Arts and Culture, says she has heard little about the new broadband network.
"Our curriculum is focused on the use of basic computer applications, like Microsoft Office," she says.
"The students don't really know about the new infrastructure. I can't say we're really encouraging them to experiment with apps or programming because we don't know much about it either.
"Maybe they'll change the curriculum but that could take a long time."
The lack of engagement is partly because the internet is intangible, and the work to build the new infrastructure has largely involved burying cables in remote areas away from the cities.
It is a quiet, invisible revolution, but its effects are definitely beginning to be felt in Bagamoyo, where trade in cheap Chinese smart phones is booming, and internet cafes are starting to struggle.
"People used to come to check their mail, Facebook and the like," says Mahbub Nurdin Faqi, who runs the Sunrise web cafe.
"But now everything is on the phones. People only really come to our cafe to print out an attachment or to send a document."
Many of these developments were happening anyway, and it is likely that mobile phone companies would have built their own infrastructure to cater for their growing market.
It may be too early to expect the government's plans to have really taken hold.
The first undersea cable arrived only in 2009, so it is an impressive feat of engineering - carried out by Chinese firm Huawei - to have laid so much cable.
Villages and phone apps
But the government insists that positive effects are already being felt, and that rural communities are benefiting.
"Communication is everywhere in Tanzania," says Science Minister Makame Mbarawa.
"All mobile phones around here have the internet.
"Villagers are using the internet and their phones to find out the price of things at the market before they even set out.
"Farmers are using the internet to plan better for what weather is coming."
Phone apps have been developed to help farmers, but it is hard to judge how successful they will be.
Mr Mbarawa raises an important point about the internet in Tanzania: It is almost exclusively mobile; fixed lines connected to homes hardly exist.
So while mobile phone companies have been happy to link up to the new fibre-optic cable to boost their data coverage, they tap into only a fraction of the cable's potential.
What the government really wants is to connect all schools, colleges and universities, and create scientific research centres and modern public libraries.
It wants hospitals and health centres linked up, and wants to bring cheap, quick internet connections to everyone in Tanzania.
To do this will take time. The cable-building project is still not finished.
The first two phases are complete, connecting the biggest cities and most of the regions.
The next two phases, building data centres and linking up remote villages, are in progress. Some 2,500km more cable still needs to be laid.
If the government wants to remain true to its word, it will have to continue to invest heavily.
A tall order for a country that still ranks among the world's poorest.
It has set up a $30m fund to ensure hard-to-reach communities do not miss out, and mobile phone companies have to give up a small percentage of their profit as part of the deal to get access to the cable.
But so far the real revolution is largely limited to the cities. Dar es Salaam residents certainly talk in glowing terms of the improvements in web access since 2009.
"I used to be pretty happy three or four years ago when I got 2MB on my laptop, and I had to wait for a night for a single American TV show to download," says Aashiq Shariff, the CEO of Raha, an internet service provider.
"Now my laptop has a 60MB connection, so I can download an entire series in five minutes. And I love it."
Mr Shariff is a poster-boy for the new dynamic Tanzania. Barely into his thirties, he sports tattoos and wears ripped jeans to the office.
Raha is fashioning itself very much in the mould of a Silicon Valley start-up.
The government will be hoping there are plenty more where Raha came from.
Especially if it is to fulfil its other key ambition, to make Tanzania an international player in providing internet services.
Science Minister Mr Mbarawa paints a relentlessly positive picture. He says there are 18 companies already signed up to use Tanzania's cable, 12 of which come from neighbouring countries including Rwanda and Uganda.
He says this type of commercial deal will raise enough cash to repay the Chinese and connect all Tanzanians, regardless of their means.
But Mr Mbarawa will need to shout louder because the internet is invisible and cannot achieve anything without the engagement of the people.