As governments throw the internet kill switch with greater frequency to head off unrest, tech communities in these countries face an uphill battle with only a few international allies
Google’s newest Code-In champion, Nji Collins Gbah, a young 17-year old computer expert from Cameroon, is the first contest winner from an African nation, and will be going to Google’s Mountain View headquarters to further hone his skills. But in the meantime, he has had to struggle with a lack of internet access at home, which went down the day after Google’s Code-In 2016 contest ended.
Local techies say that he has had to travel around the country just to submit applications to Google since then. And this is not because of a brownout or device failure – Collins already overcame those challenges during the competition – but because of an act of censorship that’s becoming all too common in the world. Collins, like millions of other Cameroonians living in the country’s English-speaking regions, has not had regular web access for over a month, because the government has imposed an internet blackout affecting some 5 million people, in an act of collective punishment to force an end to civil unrest.
Among the millions impacted by the blackout is the country’s small but growing start-up community, concentrated in the city of Buea in Cmaeroon’s South West Region, Geektime spoke with long-time resident and entrepreneur Kenneth Ngah, to get a better understanding of the impact on Buea, dubbed the “Silicon Mountain” of innovation in the region.
The Silicon Mountain
Silicon Mountain has produced a number of interesting startups in recent years, such as FeePerfect – developer of Feem – Njorku, Skylabase , Skademy, Agro-hub, Colorfluid , ActivSpaces, and LCMTours, where Mohammed Felata helped create the VIVA on-board entertainment suite. But writ large, the government is so generally unsupportive of these companies, according to Ngah, that one of the biggest hardware acquisition challenges for Silicon Mountain innovators is the customs office, since officials are so intransigent about approving technology imports and usually want to confiscate equipment.
“We have funded our start-ups and businesses from private pockets,” Ngah says, and for years, poor infrastructure meant that “the inconsistency of internet access due to some sort of control over data on telecommunication companies and service providers is in a way, a balmy blackout.” A lack of capital, too, is an issue. Local companies and initiatives, like Buea Women Techmakers and Google Developers Group Group Buea, have not especially benefitted from angel investors and incubators, but Ngah hopes this will change in the coming year.
At least, once the internet comes back on and his colleagues can resume normal work. The blackout is proving to be a lot worse for the Cameroonian start-up scene than any prior act by the government targeting communications infrastructure. It “has been a complete setback to the tech community,” Ngah says. “Personally, I have been unable to keep on the loop with my own guys on the ground,” forcing most of his colleagues to suspend their work over the past several weeks, because “they can’t reach customers on time, they can’t communicate with partners, and the techies who freelance cannot do their work effectively.” Financial transactions have also been stopped.
Some of his associates are still working, but have to travel several miles a day to areas of the country where access it still available.
Ngah can’t estimate the total financial losses from the blackout, but as an example, Ayuk Etta, speaking to Quartz Africa, said that his fintech company – Skylbase – has lost US$6,500 and he has to travel 70 kilometers a day if he wants to connect to the web – they’ve taken to calling themselves “digital refugees,” according to TRT.
As the country continues to experience “ghost town protests” – general strikes to shut down all service in the Anglophone region – Silicon Mountain has also effectively halted work, since regular business cannot be conducted. “How were they to function in the absence of internet?” asks Ngah.
And although the government has targeted the English-speaking minority in the majority Francophone nation, Ngah had praise for his French-speaking opposites, who are “providing office space for tech entrepreneurs who commute daily to work in the French regions of the country that have internet access.” Despite the government’s animosity, Ngah says, “our brothers and sisters in the Francophone zone” have shown solidarity with Silicon Mountain.
— Albert Nchinda (@AlbertNchinda) February 22, 2017
As for the multinational companies that provide internet services for Cameroon, whatever entreaties they have been making to end the blackout don’t seem to be swaying the government’s mind. Owono says they’re still being forced to comply, and Ngah says they disseminate daily warnings, written by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, threatening people “imprisonment and fines if they spread unapproved information.” Given how much Silicon Mountain is focused on mobile technology applications, such collaboration between the state censors and providers, however unwilling, still hurts.
Ngah hopes that by discussing these issues with news outlets and international organizations, such as Access Now, the government might be pressured to end the blackout. So far, though, the government seems unconcerned with its image and like a number of other countries has (probably correctly) concluded that the international community is not willing to take more direct action against acts of mass censorship, as it has not done so in other countries whose governments have imposed like-minded bans recently, such as Ethiopia or The Gambia.
But despite these woes, Ngah remains optimistic that the community can rebound and find its way forward. Young people like Collins are the future, and are now winning worldwide recognition. One area where the start-up community has made rapid progress, in fact, has been in education, as it “has in recent years worked hard to establish a platform where university students” – and also high schoolers, such as Collins – “could have a feel of technology,” says Ngah. Companies have signed more and more partnerships in recent years to encourage young people to cut their teeth at Silicon Mountain ventures, and the positive results of this are showing.
With Collins off to California and Google, and Silicon Mountain struggling to cope at home with the blackout, Ngah hopes that for the future, Silicon Mountain can “get closer to bigger tech ecosystems in the world like Silicon Valley and others to leverage their experiences to build world class technologies.”
“When the blackout is over,” Ngah hopes, “we will focus on creating very strong partnerships with international bodies and organizations whose core values centre on the fight against these type of practices so that we never find ourselves in such jeopardy.”
“We are not just building these for Cameroon,” he says, “or Africa, but for the world.” The question is, though, what can the world do to help break the internet blockade, in Cameroon today and some other country or countries tomorrow, so that this can happen?