In Search of the Internet in Burkina Faso

“Planet Facebook.” Image: dullhunk/Flickr

The past decade is often characterized by the immense expansion of a new phenomenon taking over the globe: The World Wide Web. The Internet has become a standard in North American life, contributing to and facilitating daily activities from shopping and reading the newspaper, all the way to building professional relationships, finding jobs, and even dating. It shapes the way we live our lives on a personal level, as well as in a professional environment. Many people cannot imagine going several hours without checking their email or updating their choice of social media site, let alone going offline for a month, or even a year.

However, monthly and even annual Internet access is a novelty for well over half of the world’s population. My daughter, Heather Sherlock, a sophomore at the University of Ottawa, is studying International Development and Globalization, so this is a topic that is very near and dear to her heart. We were recently discussing what life looked like in countries where many people have never even come close to accessing the Internet, and I had one of those proud fatherly moments as she educated me about Burkina Faso.

Burkina Faso is a small nation in the North West of Africa, wedged between Mali, Niger and four other nations that make up the so-called armpit of Africa. Known for its alarmingly low living standards, it comes as no surprise that only 3 percent of the country’s population has regular access to the Internet. With the majority of people living in small villages throughout the country, Internet is often limited to larger cities, and even then, the connection is slow, unreliable, and rarely worth its elevated cost in a country where GDP per capita is only $1400.

It seems that there’s a gaping hole in the World Wide Web, a hole that is affecting 97 percent of Burkinabes in a country that could benefit extensively from a bit of time online. Heather’s friend John, a born-and-raised Burkinabe, gave us some answers.

John Hanks, a 19-year-old student from Ouagadougou, is among the lucky 3 percent of Burkinabes to have regular access to Internet, and is one of only 40,000 Facebook users in the country. This comes at a cost, though; as John explained that he spends $100 a month for 3 mbps, although the speed of his Internet is often less than half of what is promised. (By way of comparison, people in the U.S. enjoy average speeds of 8.6 mpbs and, in South Korea, 14.2 mbps.) John added that those who can afford it will sometimes visit cyber cafes, which have sprung up all around the major cities, but even still, the connection is slow and the price is much higher than many are able to pay.

Although cost and quality are important factors playing into lack of Internet access, they are factors that plague a large percentage of the developing world; yet very few countries face the same alarming Internet rates found in Burkina Faso. This could be due to one of Burkina Faso’s most alarming statistics of all: a literacy rate of 29 percent. The Internet, based largely on a collection of key words, would be little help to people who cannot even write their own names. Furthermore, the country faces poverty so extreme that much of its population lacks the most basic human rights, with limited resources to ensure access to water, food and even shelter. Internet access, which has recently become a hot topic among the United Nations Human Rights Council, seems to have fallen behind water and warmth on the government’s lengthy priority list.

But should the Internet fall so far behind? Sure, a starving Burkinabe child cannot eat the Internet to subside his hunger. Wifi won’t bring rain to the expansive drought gripping much of Burkina Faso’s countryside. But examples are far and wide of how the Internet is saving lives around the globe. Websites like are using the Internet to feed the world’s hungry by incorporating rice donation into online trivia games. In Mumbai, India, Dabbawallahs, cycling food distributors, have used the Internet to launch a campaign of food sharing to help feed children in nearby slums, saving approximately two lives a day. Even the UN has launched numerous online campaigns with their World Food Programme, designed to create opportunities for anyone with access to the Internet to join the fight against world hunger.

The Internet, it seems, is doing more than facilitating online shopping in North America; it is saving lives around the globe. In a country where food and water distribution is struggling to meet its demand, it may be beneficial for the government to consider the possibilities of the World Wide Web.

Originally posted by:
Gary Sherlock.The CEO of Peer 1 Hosting.

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