Before you jump to conclusion this Article is not about putting down the initiatives of Facebook, on the contrary we recognize the tremendous benefits and positive impact such initiatives can and will have on Nigeria and the continent of Africa as a whole. But at the same time it would be wise to look passed the shiny new paint job and pop the hood to asses the mid to long term effects such initiatives could have on our industry and economy and a whole.
Mr. Facebook Visits Nigeria
Mark's visit to Nigeria was a big deal, regardless of whether or not CNN chose to acknowledge our country by name in reports of his visit. Even though he flew in under the radar, someone as well-known and prolific as the co-founder and CEO of Facebook can only move incognito for so long before getting spotted. In no time at all his visit was all over the news and media, everyone was talking about and thumbs got busy.
Mark had his reasons for coming to Nigeria, and it was not necessarily to promote Nigeria as the next big technological hotspot that it is.
One of them was to check the progress of his most recent investment via the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a fast-rising startup called Andela brewed in the co-creation hub (an incubation space for Nigerian startups) that offers top African developers the opportunity to be trained to global standards and gain invaluable experience working with leading foreign tech firms.
Another reason was to check field-test results for his Internet.org initiative. Having previously been launched in India with some resistance, Africa was the next big target market. Rosemary Njoku, a local entrepreneur had amassed a user-base of about 3,000 customers from selling Facebook Express Wifi Services. This service provides affordable internet packages to customers, giving them access to the internet via hotspots strategically positioned around the city and in some remote regions.
Perhaps his most important reason for his visit was to pitch his new Internet service to the Nigerian Government via his $150m Amos 6 Satellite which coincidentally, at the time, was about to be launched into space by Elon Musk's Space X Company before the fueling incident that resulted in the destruction of the rocket and its payload.
Let's just take some time to look at these initiatives in more detail.
Andela - Golden Opportunity or Cheap Outsourcing?
Andela is a for-profit company that selects the top 1% of tech talent from African countries, grooms and vets them for a 6-month period and then integrates them into foreign tech companies as distributed team members for a period of "4 years". According to the Andela website they have over 30,000 applications with each iteration of the program, and only the best of the best make it to the vetting stage. Even at the vetting stage your acceptance into the program isn't guaranteed and many are ejected before the 6 months period lapses.
This sounds a lot like Software Outsourcing, which isn't necessarily a new concept. The quick rise of India's tech economy has been accredited to software outsourcing. Foreign companies in need of developers approach Andela and pay them in exchange for allocating a portion of it's highly trained workforce as distributed team members to help support these companies.
During the 4-year period, developers work for these foreign companies and are paid fair wages (no details of this provided so far) in local currency with some additional benefits like healthcare and free lunch. Sounds fair enough but why 4 whole years? Is this the turnaround time Andela needs to make a decent profit on each developer? Even after developers have completed their 4-year tenure, they aren't necessarily guaranteed full-time jobs, just the promise and guarantee that their experience should fetch them great jobs in any of the top IT and communications firms, or the experience needed to start their own business.
Andela has its benefits. It helps groom the Nigerian tech talent and teaches development skills to the Nigerian youth, but at the same time we need to look below the surface. Let's be honest, the only companies that hire outsourced workers are those unwilling to pay fair wages to developers in their own country. Simply put, the truth is Andela is supplying cheap labor for these companies to exploit, and then marketing their business as a kind of humanitarian cause.
Internet.org - Free Internet or ISP Killer & Internet Dictatorship?
Mark had a vision where internet access was free and even people living in remote villages had access to it. Your guess is as good as mine with regards the motives behind the vision. The vision has been met with some criticism however, most notably from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates who criticized Mark for focusing more on internet connectivity rather than more critical issues like public health, food, water and medicine... and he has a good point.
Mark's Satellite was the trump card (no relationship whatsoever to the ongoing US elections) in his push to make internet freely available and accessible even in the most remote and rural areas of 3rd-world countries. The Satellite was poised to provide the backbone in a complex network involving wireless hot-spots, drones, high-altitude balloons and local telecom infrastructure.
It's no longer news that Mark's $150m Amos 6 Satellite was destroyed in an explosion when SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket was being refueled. Providence? Either way, Mark had a back-up plan in the form of it's Aquila drone and until he can raise another $150m to put a new Satellite in orbit he'll have to settle for that.
Internet.org and express wi-fi had already been rolled out in India. Initially it was packaged as free-basics, an initiative to provide free internet access but it was rejected by the Indian government due to violation of net neutrality. The argument of activists was that by offering such services for free, users will be discouraged to visit other websites and Facebook would have total control over which sites would be allowed on its platform.
Facebook has since re-introduced the initiative as a commercial Wifi service instead. Customers can purchase fast, reliable and affordable data packages from their local ISP to access the Internet via local hotspots, getting connectivity via flying drones and high-altitude balloons.
What happens when Facebook's internet gateway gets so popular with much wider coverage as a direct result of its affordability? What happens to the other local ISPs in the long run? Will they be able to afford to lower their prices to compete? Is this a monopoly in the making? Is the Nigerian government doing anything to check this activity before the time comes?
Also consider this scenario, imagine a future where Facebook holds the key and total control over the internet gateway. Their core services will be free off course, allowing even more people to create Facebook accounts and help grow their user base. Facebook gets to dictate what is allowed on their platform. Businesses will have to subscribe and create Websites and Apps to Facebook's specifications, adhere to their terms and likely embed Facebook code in their platforms. Any platforms, even remotely seen to be in direct competition to Facebook will simply not be allowed on their Internet, period. Facebook will in effect own the Internet in 3rd-world countries.
In closing, and just to re-iterate, this Article isn't meant to put down these initiatives, just to put all the cards on table and bring up some points that you may have previously overlooked. So what do you think? Are you an Andela developer benefiting from the program? Do you currently use Facebook's affordable Express Wifi service and loving it? Drop your comments below and let's discuss.
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Posted 7:41pm, Sun 18th December, 2016 by myfinancein