It was the third day of our lovely adventure to attempt the climb to the summit of Chappal Waddi, Nigeria’s highest mountain located in the southern region of Gashaka-Gumti, the largest national park in Nigeria. As we got closer to base camp, the mobile signal bars slowly disappeared to the point where all one had was the MTN-Stay Safe. No calls could be made and no data could be transferred.
The irony of Stay Safe was not lost on me. I won’t bore you with the details of the trip, but for two days I could not receive a text on my phone or send out any data. The peace and quiet was not altogether bad to be honest and I have contemplated a deliberate disconnect as part of my own wellness routine.
By the time we made it back to the lodgings in Mambilla, there were somewhere in the region of 50 missed calls from mostly family members and a couple of hundred WhatsApp messages from folks who had tried to contact me. Thankfully, no, I am not that popular.
It did get me thinking though: what does it actually mean when we talk about Nigeria, Africa actually, being a mobile first nation, continent? Also, where exactly are all these people supposedly using mobile phones as part of their everyday lives? As with most things, the devil is in the details.
According to the World Bank, the percentage of the population using the Internet stood at 36 percent. “Internet users are individuals who have used the Internet (from any location) in the last three months. The Internet can be used via a computer, mobile phone, personal digital assistant, games machine, digital TV, etc.”
This is somewhat interesting because if we are counting devices which individuals own as internet users, then there is the potential for double counting. These data points are derived from the telecommunication companies who are not necessarily interested in lifting the veil on how their numbers are precisely calculated.
There are some interesting data points pointed out in one lovely article from Techpoint Africa, where the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) contradicts data reported by both MTN and Airtel, our two largest mobile operators. The picture is somewhat muddled but one thing is clear: there appears to be a lot of devices connected to the internet and most of them are connected in the major urban regions in Nigeria.
The further out you move from Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Ibadan, etc., the less access you will get to the internet. The numbers on the actual consumption of data, which is the lifeblood for a digital economy, is too sketchy to be discussed in any meaningful way.
There is the reality though that most Nigerians who are using mobile phones that can actually access the internet are buying data bundles at the lower end: 1GB, etc. The average Joe is not leaving his or her data on if they are not expecting some important information to come through, and the infrastructure to support high data transmission at cheap rates is not yet in place. A lot still needs to be done to ensure that we move from hype to reality and deliver on our mobile-first driven, youthful heavy population.
A robust and reliable digital infrastructure is essential for a digital and mobile-first economy. This includes high-speed internet access, reliable mobile networks, and modern data centres. The question of being in black spots where data connectivity does not exist has to become a thing of the past.
There are a myriad of options when it comes to ways to access the internet from an infrastructure perspective and this must be done in a holistic, organised fashion. Regulations need to be in place to govern digital and mobile technologies, protect user privacy and security, and ensure fair competition. These regulations need to be flexible enough to adapt to rapidly evolving technology and business models.
The NCC must see access to the internet as a right of every Nigerian and work with telcos to ensure that this access is provided at an affordable cost. Expensive internet access for a poor population is not doable. Digital literacy is essential for a digital and mobile-first economy. People need to have the skills and knowledge to use digital technologies effectively and safely. This requires investment in education and training programmes that can reach a wide range of people.
While the telcos carry on in their so-called data wars, there are still many individuals who don’t see why they should have access to the internet at all. How exactly will it change their lives? If the why is left unanswered, the demand will continue to lag behind supply, keeping prices high and penetration in the areas most needed low. Innovation is the lifeblood of a digital and mobile-first economy.
Governments and businesses need to invest in research and development to create new technologies and business models that can drive growth and create jobs. The top apps and platforms are still finance and social. More needs to be done to close the other bottom of the pyramid gaps around education, logistics and healthcare where the internet and mobile are causing true disruption in other parts of the world.
Finally, collaboration is essential for a digital and mobile-first economy. Governments, businesses, and communities need to work together to create an ecosystem that supports innovation, entrepreneurship, and growth.
Mordi is a former chief operating officer of Carbon (a lending fintech) and immediate past head of digital lending at Access Bank. Twitter: @epmordi