Bread or data? Internet costs hinder Namibian businesswomen

Ruusa Shikwanyu braids a clients hair in the Horse Shoe Market in Windhoek, Namibia, September, 24, 2022

Ruusa Shikwanyu braids a clients hair in the Horse Shoe Market in Windhoek, Namibia, September, 24, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

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Women small business owners say online access has boosted their income, but the price of data is holding many back

  • Namibia's mobile data costs among world's highest
  • Female traders struggle to sell online
  • Cheap internet can help bridge gender gaps, experts say

WINDHOEK, Namibia - Ruusa Shikwanyu's fingers move at lightning speed, expertly weaving together long braids on her client's head at a market in Windhoek, Namibia's capital.

Shikwanyu has been braiding hair for 16 years, but her clientele and income have doubled since she started advertising online in 2015, joining a growing number of female entrepreneurs who are embracing the internet to grow their businesses.

"A friend showed me how to post my styles and products on WhatsApp and Facebook; it is like having an online CV," she said, smiling, from a small room she shares with a nail beautician and seamstress at the market.

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Female small business owners like Shikwanyu - who make up nearly 70% of Namibia's informal economy - said internet access had helped them increase sales and given them more financial freedom to educate their children and buy groceries.

Their stories are echoed across Sub-Saharan Africa, where internet use has jumped from just 1% of the region's population in 2000 to 30% in 2020, according to World Bank data, spurring new connections and business opportunities.

But, even as mobile infrastructure has slowly grown and cheaper smartphones become available, expensive Namibian phone data takes a huge chunk of users' income, said independent digital rights consultant Nashilongo Gervasius.

Gervasius said that poor telecoms infrastructure and too few service providers in the market are holding back access and keeping prices high.

In a bad month, women can be forced to choose between paying for food or data - and risk losing clientele if they stay offline, Gervasius said.

Sub-Saharan Africa has some of the world's most expensive mobile data, according to the Worldwide Mobile Data Pricing 2022 report.

Namibia came 12th from bottom in the survey of 233 countries, with one gigabyte costing $10.52 on average in 2022, as compared to average costs of $1.53 across North African countries and $2.47 in Western Europe.

"When my grandmother recently passed away I had to use my money to pay for transport to her funeral - I had to choose between that and data," said Ruth Lazarus, a cashier who began selling imported clothes and shoes online last year.

Ruth Lazarus scrolls through images of some of the shoes she is selling online while sitting at a coffee shop in Windhoek, Namibia, September, 24, 2022

Ruth Lazarus scrolls through images of some of the shoes she is selling online while sitting at a coffee shop in Windhoek, Namibia, September, 24, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

Ruth Lazarus scrolls through images of some of the shoes she is selling online while sitting at a coffee shop in Windhoek, Namibia, September, 24, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

Women's empowerment

Just over half of Namibia's population have access to the internet, according to internet research site DataReportal, though the Internet Society said only 47% of women are online.

The tech used by online saleswomen like Lazarus is not complicated.

A friend showed her how to download WeChat, a Chinese instant messaging and mobile payment app, to find Namibians living in China who export affordable shoes and clothes.

Lazarus then advertises the products on her WhatsApp and takes orders and payments online.

"In a good month of sales, I can go to bed with a smile," said Lazarus from a coffee shop in a Windhoek mall where she works, as she scrolled through her phone displaying some of the items she sells.

Africa is a leader in mobile banking systems, where top telecoms operators have become big financial players thanks to their "mobile money" networks, which provide basic banking to tens of millions through handsets.

While the government is building more cellphone masts and Google recently installed an underwater cable to boost internet connections, many Namibians say the cost and painstakingly slow internet speed leaves them feeling frustrated.

The average download speed using 3G is just 1 megabyte (MB) per second, according to the Communications Regulatory Authority of Namibia (CRAN), an independent regulator that supervises Namibia's telecommunications services and networks.

This compares to the global average mobile download speed of 29 MB per second, according to DataReportal.

"Internet needs to be seen as a tool for gender empowerment," said Gervasius.

"Women have so many ideas and products, and with the internet they don't need a physical shop anymore, but we have to make it more accessible."

'Right' to internet

Namibia's tiny population is spread across a desert nation one-and-a-half times the size of France, which draws tourists from around the world to see its sand dunes, wild animals and ancient rock art.

But rural Namibians say they cannot grasp the full potential of tourism without proper internet access to advertise their services on social media.

Diana Somses, a manager at a family-run campsite in Twyfelfontein, poses for a photo at the welcome desk in north-western Namibia, September 29, 2022

Diana Somses, a manager at a family-run campsite in Twyfelfontein, poses for a photo at the welcome desk in north-western Namibia, September 29, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

Diana Somses, a manager at a family-run campsite in Twyfelfontein, poses for a photo at the welcome desk in north-western Namibia, September 29, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

Diana Somses, a manager at a family-run campsite in Twyfelfontein in north-western Namibia is already using nearly a fifth of her monthly 1,200 Namibian dollars ($67) salary to buy data that can run out in a few days, or even hours.

She wants to further her education online and post pictures of the campsite on Instagram and Facebook to draw new customers, and use WhatsApp to confirm bookings.

"I think we have a right to access these opportunities. Especially after COVID, we need more clients," said Somses, as she stood behind the site's reception desk.

Nearly three-quarters of African youth agree with her.

A study by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation charity showed that 71% of 4,500 18- to 24-year-olds across Africa believe internet is a fundamental human right, but only one in eight could afford coverage at all times.

The country's 2009 Communications Act and the internet regulator CRAN have proposed a levy on telecommunications firms for a fund that could help roll out internet in areas with poor coverage and community spaces like schools and clinics.

But in 2018 the Supreme Court ruled that the levy collection was unconstitutional, halting the formation of the fund, and spurring ongoing court battles between CRAN and largely government-owned telecommunication companies.

"We are coming into this internet conversation quite late, but now that we are having it, we need to be intentional about taking internet to where it is most needed," said Gervasius.

At the campsite, Somses looked at her phone screen as the website she was trying to view slowly buffered, displaying a loading symbol instead.

"If the internet works, it can be a powerful tool - for my studies, for our business ... but we need good network at a price we can afford first," she said.

($1 = 17.9910 Namibian dollars)

(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg. Editing by Sonia Elks.)


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