Editor’s note: Johan Nel is the country manager of Gumtree South Africa.
In Soshanguve, a township just north of Pretoria in South Africa, there was a small kiosk that sold fruit, cigarettes and snacks to passersby. The owner of the kiosk had recently installed Wi-Fi and, soon after, placed tables and chairs out front. And then her customers soon began to linger. They bought more items; they socialized. Her business became a hub, transforming from a corrugated tin to a kiosk and then to a cafe, growing 800 percent. The Internet anchored passersby to her business and made her — and the community — see things differently. Operate differently. Shop differently.
Access to the Internet should be a basic human right. In today’s world, you are at a considerable disadvantage without it. Considering that most companies — even in the developing world — only accept scholarship and job applications via email, not having access to the Internet is tantamount to not having the means to dig oneself out of poverty.
Elon University asked 1,500 experts to compile their predictions about what the Internet will look like in 2025. What emerged — judging not just by their predictions, but also by past behavior — is that access to the Internet is essential today. If we can’t get people connected, we are leaving them behind. Everything will be affected: our economy, our social environs, our education system. Better schools, more government assistance and reforms are mere stop-gaps compared to the online world that has endless, up-to-date information, tips and self-instruction. The Internet doesn’t discriminate; it doesn’t have borders; it doesn’t antiquate.
That doesn’t mean we tackle connectivity as a charitable initiative. In fact, we shouldn’t. Any business with an e-commerce or web-based community can draw a direct benefit when the unconnected are connected – if of course, you are willing and able to provide them with the tools they need. Connecting an unconnected operating environment should be part of your long-term business strategy.
In developing nations, we can only go as far as our (relevantly) small, connected market can take us. When you find yourself ranking at the top of your game, it’s time to change the game. The Internet is boundary-less, unlimited and full of potential — if your business plays in the online space, it should be too. When you are expanding a network of Internet users, you are directly or indirectly expanding your own market.
For sites such as our own, that already own the bulk of the Internet population, we cannot grow if the Internet population doesn’t grow. That has to factor into our long-term business decisions. Ultimately, providing another business with Internet access benefits everyone, placing a stamp of goodwill and knowledge on a community that is priceless.
Perhaps being a market leader in 2014 and the coming years is also being a connectivity leader. Maybe it’s not the responsibility of governments and nonprofits to provide that connectivity. Perhaps, waiting for someone else to provide your customers with the connectivity they need to transact with you is the worst business decision companies are making.
E-businesses in Africa have a responsibility to alleviate Internet poverty, and the responsibility is to themselves.