Ethiopians spend a great deal of time enjoying their coffee. No wonder there are so many cafés in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. Cafés are more than just a place to hang out though; for many, they represent a dynamic public sphere in which to discuss the hottest issues facing the country. Meaningful conversations taking place in every corner of the cafés show how well-informed citizens are and how they enjoy exchanging their opinions about many things around them. But where do people get their information in the first place?
Although Ethiopia is a country with a population of 93 million, the weekly newspaper with the highest circulation only prints about 20,000 copies. State TV and radio reach a wider range of listeners, but there are few private FM radio stations and only one offers 24-hour programming. The state television and radio stations play an important role, especially when it comes to creating harmony and social cohesion for the country’s development. Ethiopia has enjoyed a high rate of economic growth for five consecutive years now. The state media lack credibility, however, when it comes to political issues. So what about the internet?
In the beginning …
In early 1960s, when the Internet was originally developed by ARPA, it was intended for military use. When the internet was first introduced into Ethiopia in 1993, it wasn’t intended as a way for Ethiopians to communicate with one other either. It was designed to promote faster communication among humanitarian organizations, the government, and UN affiliated organizations.
Later on its main purpose was to reach potential tourists and promote Ethiopia as a destination. Today still less than 1% of the population has access to the Internet, making Internet penetration in Ethiopia among the lowest in the world.
The Internet has pretty much remained as it was originally intended: reserved for foreigners and foreign organizations. The state-owned company Ethio Telecom (formerly ETC) is still the only telecommunication provider in the country.
Ethio Telecom has been struggling to find its field of activity and role in the country’s development. They have put a lot of effort into offering mobile connections – and mobile penetration in the country has indeed risen to about 17 million – but when it comes to the internet, they haven’t really targeted Ethiopian citizens. Internet coverage, quality and customer service remain very poor. To this day, the monopoly of Ethio Telecom remains the main obstacle for Ethiopian Internet growth, as Internet access is simply too expensive for most citizens. “The Internet is a luxury” is the generally accepted mindset.
Obviously, poor Ethiopians have never been an official target audience. Some foreign organizations have designed and financed projects aimed at creating alternative infrastructures, such as the SchoolNet project and WeredaNet networks. But these have either failed completely or failed to produce any tangible impact.
Social media and Ethiopia: a complicated relationship
But during the early years of the new millennium, returnees from the Ethiopian diasporas and university students in the country began using Yahoo! Mail services and pen pal sites – probably one of the first kinds of social media platforms in the world – on the Internet daily. Back then 56kps modems provided the only available connections. International organizations and universities alone had access to slightly faster connections.
Hi5 was undoubtedly the first social media platform in common use in Ethiopia. While MySpace was growing popular with the rest of the world, in Ethiopia Hi5 was the place to be. With good reason, since MySpace takes long time to load, as you might imagine, since opening a single multimedia webpage with a 56kps modem (usually about 14kps) takes a considerable amount of time.
Furthermore, MySpace was even blocked by Ethio Telecom for quite some time. The blocking of the social media site was a sign of the difficult relationship between Ethio Telecom, the sole service provider, and its customers.
That’s why, in early 2000, the Internet in Ethiopia was still pretty much limited to Yahoo! and Hi5. Users employed Google for Internet searches and generally looked for scholarships and financial aid. It is easy to argue that information was limited to an elite and was not accessible to the wider population. Thus the information available on the Internet at the time was utterly useless to the average citizen.
Then Facebook came to the rescue!
Even today, the country’s infrastructure is still far behind the rest of the world. Ethiopia is at the very bottom of the International Telecommunications Union’s Information Development Index (IDI) with a score of 0.97 and in 154th place out of 159 countries in 2010. But from this very low base, the Ethiopian communications sector has seen substantial growth over the last five years. This has primarily been the result of massive investment via a vendor financing loan agreement with China’s Zhongxing Telecom Corporation (ZTE) worth 1.9 billion USD for setting up internet infrastructure.
Michael, a friend of mine, owns an Internet café in the centre of the capital. Out of curiosity, I once asked him if he could track people’s browser histories to get some general ideas about what they are interested in. He almost laughed at my question, and, without hesitation, said: “People stand outside my door and ask ‘do you have Facebook?'” For many today, Facebook is the Internet.
In Ethiopia, Facebook penetration almost doubles the general rate of Internet connectivity. That is to say that there are more Facebook users in the country than there are Internet connections. Disconnected people use their mobile phones or visit internet cafés for this one reason: Facebook.
The social network platform Facebook has helped transfer Internet ownership out of the hands of foreigners and governmental organizations to Ethiopians. This might sound like a contradiction, since Facebook is run by a US company. But for the first time Ethiopians are using the Internet, in this case Facebook, to disseminate information that is important to them, to share it with others and create their own digital public sphere. For the first time in Ethiopian Internet history, Ethiopians themselves are the targeted Internet users.
What about blogging?
Nevertheless, to this day, non-Ethiopians and Ethiopians in the diasporas have generated most of the content that deals with issues relating to Ethiopia. Their active participation has helped the blogging scene grow significantly in recent years. Still, they aren’t a perfect representation of their country, since they are abroad and don’t know exactly what is happening on the ground.
The Ethiopian blogosphere hit its peak probably around 2005, when the country had experienced a relatively democratic election campaign. New blogs from inside the country sprang up every day, and people were discussing a lot of things online. However, the election was followed by violent street protests that left 200 people dead, so a lot of people withdrew and the blogging scene went into decline.
Recently, though, thanks to Facebook, a lot of bloggers have appeared on the scene. Facebook motivates people to generate content and most bloggers use Facebook to attract traffic to their posts. Bloggers repost parts of their articles on Facebook and generate a good number of hits on their websites. There are about 100 resident bloggers in Ethiopia now, and their numbers are increasing. This is still a very limited number of bloggers for a country the size of Ethiopia, though, so it is clearly an area where a lot of support is still needed.
Although there are few bloggers in the country, they have a strong network. Their community raises a wide range of issues that includes politics, social affairs, health issues, feminism, economic development, ICT and blogging itself.
Since the traditional media in Ethiopia are highly censored, resident bloggers are also well aware of the need to practice self-censorship, a very important routine task. Some bloggers write anonymously to avoid becoming the target of political and cultural challenges. This certainly decreases their credibility, but it increases their safety.
Does information from social media reach the people?
There can be no doubt that the rate of internet penetration is low in Ethiopia. And although Facebook penetration is higher, the number of people active on Facebook is also small when compared to the overall population. Mouth-to-mouth is therefore still the most important channel for spreading information. People chat in cafés and share the most interesting information, whether it comes from the state media, print or Internet media. The most effective of these is still Facebook.
Due to its immediacy and personal directness, any interesting piece of information on Facebook leaks to the general public faster than through any other media – with the help of face-to-face conversation. Therefore, digital media, including citizen’s media, reach a wider audience than the 1% officially connected to the Internet. As the regular media increasingly look towards online media as a source of current news stories, this process is bound to continue and increase in significance in future.
1. UNHCR-report on freedom of the press in Ethiopia 2012
2. International Telecommunication Union: Case study Ethiopia
3. Lishan Adam: Ethiopia ICT Sector Performance Review 2009 / 2010
4. The latest posts of Ethiopian bloggers: http://ethiopian-blog.com/
Note: This article is originally published at www.digital-development-debates.org. The Digital Development Debates team helped on editing the article.