Zimbabwe made the right move this week; one every other African country should emulate. It is possible, however, that the reason was not the right one.
In dropping mobile data tariffs from 12.5 cents to 5 cents a megabyte (MB), the Posts and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) did what most African countries have not had the guts to do: slash the cost of connectivity, especially on the mobile platform.
Anyone who laughs in scorn when the cost of sending pictures, screenshots or simply making a WhatsApp call, goes down by 60% has not known the indignity of missing out on a viral meme doing the rounds getting the world talking. A cheaper MB means more chit-chat!
This announcement came conveniently a month before the July polls. President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Zanu-PF is up against a party led by a man in his forties, Nelson Chamisa.
The president of the MDC has 249000 followers, to Mngangagwa’s 139000. Chamisa tweets with a lot more frequency, virtually with a new tweet every hour.
This takes part of the battle for the highest office in Zimbabwe to the world of social media.
The decision to cut the mobile data tariffs could not have come at a better time for all candidates.
The same goes for the monitoring of election results, keeping the world informed of the counting and for the ultimate improvement of service delivery.
Everyone wins in a way, whenever communication costs are reduced.
In the fourth industrial revolution that we are all talking about, data is not a luxury, but more essential than oxygen.
Without it the world stops: and it has stopped for many small businesses and poor families in Africa. As mobile network operators and internet service providers maximise profits instead of optimising the return on their investment, they deprive us all of an opportunity to communicate with one another, conduct life-saving operations using tele-medical techniques, or conduct poverty-alleviating education via the internet.
All these channels guzzle dollops of data. The question is: Why are African governments, that could benefit the most from tele-medicine and other practical applications of the Internet of Things and mobile telephony, not declaring war on high data costs?
Already in South Africa we have had the #DataMustFall movement.
Demonstrations took place, parliamentary inquiries and committees sat, commitments were made, but still we are paying a fortune for the chance to connect with the world. Small businesses, that could advertise their products or services by simply sharing pictures and videos with the help of their cellphones are left out of that alluring “Africa Rising” dream.
With cheaper mobile data, fighting crime would be a great deal easier. Children in far-flung areas would be able to send videos of themselves playing soccer or showcasing whatever talent they possess.
Teachers could dispatch videos of science experiments, artists send images and videos of their work, and babysitters could keep their employers at ease with intermittent broadcasts of what their children get up to by simply going live on Facebook.
Even the efforts to stem identity theft and human trafficking would receive a boost, as border control could video-call the guardians whose names appear on the documents to verify permission for the minor to travel. While it is true and regrettable that lower costs of mobile data will mean that we will be more inclined to share more of our inane and sleazy content, there is no excuse for allowing data prices to remain as high as they are.
Zimbabwe is proof that, with political will and the right amount of necessity, African governments are fully capable of making progressive decisions for the benefit of all.
The motive for cutting the price of data on mobile phone might have been the wrong one for Potraz, but I will take it any time.
Progress is progress, no matter the trigger. Besides, we will only really know after the elections if this was a mere political ploy or something bigger.
Until then, let it rain cheaper data!
South Africa, are you watching?
* Victor Kgomoeswana is the author of Africa is Open for Business, a media commentator and public speaker on African business affairs, and a columnist for Destiny Man – Twitter Handle: @VictorAfrica. The Sunday Independent (SA)