It’s All About Language: Tech Entrepreneurs Suffer Through Cameroon’s Internet Shutdown
English-speaking regions of the West African country of Cameroon have now been without internet for over two months after the government ordered telecoms firms to shut down services in the northwest and southwest regions.
The shutdown came after Anglophones in these regions went on strike over alleged bias in favor of Francophones. Two Anglophone civil society groups have been outlawed and their leaders arrested.
The disconnection of internet services has seen condemnation across the board. A United Nations expert called on the Cameroonian government to restore internet services, saying denying them represented “an appalling violation of their right to freedom of expression.”
“I am particularly concerned at the tightening of the space for free speech at a time where its promotion and protection should be of the utmost importance,” said David Kaye, special rapporteur on freedom of expression.
“A network shutdown of this scale violates international law – it not only suppresses public debate, but also deprives Cameroonians of access to essential services and basic resources.”
The shutdown has had a particularly negative effect on the country’s growing tech industry. Ironically, President Paul Biya and his government put the development of ICT at the heart of the country’s growth plans.
Biya promised to increase employment in the tech space by investing in infrastructure, and had been making some progress. Much of this progress was demonstrated by the growth of Silicon Mountain, the tech hub that has developed in the small town of Buea around its university.
Silicon Mountain has garnered a lot of attention, but its progress has now been stalled. Developers and entrepreneurs are headed to bigger cities to get online, and the local ecosystem has been disrupted.
“The internet shutdown is a big discouragement to young entrepreneurs as they discover that the government is more than willing to switch off their main channel of distribution or marketing. Startups in the Anglophone cities are migrating to Francophone cities, which seems like economic warfare with the internet shutdown being the weapon,” says Otto Akama, community manager at the ActivSpaces incubator.
ActivSpaces Buea has had to cancel major training programs and events, transferring them to Francophone cities, which Akama says is unfair to the local tech community. His own business, Makonjo Media, is in a tough situation.
“At the start of the year we had a plan to focus on our team culture. We designed ways to work together as a team, learn about our capacity and discover ways to improve. However, with the shutdown, it is difficult for us to work together,” he says.
“In the first month of the shutdown, we began by taking daily commutes to nearby cities with internet. We worked from Douala. However, the cost of daily commutes and other inconvenience factors made us to reduce the number of people who commute and the average number of commutes per week. This has led to a rapid drop in productivity.”
Akama says the startup is suffering as its fixed costs like rent, internet and other bills are not going down.
“Especially because we had prepaid for up to six months for a couple of services like rent and internet. Our revenue goals are badly hurt,” he says.
Talking with the government is a risky business, but Akama says he has had discussions around the country’s ambition to become a digital economy.
“Each time I bring up my concerns about the internet shutdown during these meetings, the officers I talk with make it clear that the internet discussion is a political discussion above their pay check, so we should forget about it and talk on things that they have the power to handle,” he says.
He believes investors will be more skeptical over backing companies in Cameroon as a result of the shutdown, something that will do serious damage to the many startups that were getting themselves investment-ready in the country.
Cameroon had not been making especially fast progress on its digital transformation in any case. It ranked 124th out of 139 countries, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Information Technology Report Network Readiness Index. The internet shutdown will further hamper its development, according to Dr Bitange Ndemo, former cabinet secretary at Kenya’s Ministry of Communications.
“There is great tech potential for any African country. The problem has always been affordability and access to broadband and data. Wherever you have a young population and abundant source of knowledge through Internet, there will always be potential,” he says.
“By denying people knowledge and freedom, they are destroying the future of the nation with serious consequences in the days to come. The government is sending the wrong messages to investors. It perhaps explains why FDI to the country is low. They are undermining the future of its people.”
The international reaction to the shutdown has been strong, with opposition united under the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurInternet. The town of Buea, and the leagues of entrepreneurs and startups that make up the Silicon Mountain community, must hope that happens sooner rather than later if their opportunities are not to be stifled.
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