In the early 2000s, my friends and I couldn’t wait till after school to head to the nearest cyber café, to surf the Web. We couldn’t afford to be left out of the “www” wave that had recently hit Nigeria.
Cyber cafés, with large dishes and tall masts, sprung up and blossomed in major Nigerian cities, and, for us, no distance was too far to satisfy our thirst for the ‘new’ world online. These cyber cafés, then the cream of Nigeria’s entrepreneurial world, created affiliated businesses and employment opportunities and met the longings of the average Nigerian youth.
But they also became the springboard for internet scamming with which Nigeria’s reputation became intrinsically linked. Spending several hours in a cyber café was later to be interpreted to mean one was a yahoo-yahoo, the name for Nigeria’s internet fraudsters who lure and defraud unsuspecting victims through spurious tales of love and fortune.
Today, almost a decade after their heyday, most cyber cafés have either closed shop or converted to other business interests. Only a negligible few—now shrunken—have weathered the storm. They lost relevance due to bad management, inefficient internet service providers, unreliable power supply, and, perhaps most important of all, mobile internet.
In most developed countries cyber cafes were a blip in history as most people soon had relatively satisfactory internet connections in the privacy of their homes. In many Nigerian cities these were much more important as it opened the rest of the world to us in a way that even satellite television was unable to do.
But mobile phones—and eventually mobile internet on feature phones–changed that very quickly and killed off most cyber cafés that once dotted many Nigerian cities. According to the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, as at February 2015, Nigeria had 83 million active phone lines with access to mobile internet on their phones. Remember as recently as 2001 there were only about 400,000 fixed telephone lines in the whole country.
One of the reasons for the rapid uptake as well as personal convenience of mobile internet versus going to a public internet café, was also the relative cost.
Browsing at a cyber café cost an average of 100 naira (then about $1) per hour for snail-pace connections. Sometimes just to check one’s email could take forever to open. Mobile internet changed that with faster connections at rates as low as 33 naira ($0.16) daily.
In the early days of basic feature mobile phones, sim cards used cost as much as 25,000 naira (then about $250). Ironically, the rise of the smartphone and its much better functionality coincided with the impact of network competition here. It really helped bring down the cost of connectivity and sim cards today cost as little as 50 naira (0.25 cents) each.
And when you think about it the phones in your hand offers much more internet, telephony, e-commerce, emailing, cloud storage, and social media—at better convenience than our once beloved average cyber café ever offered, due to data and security restrictions.
Although broadband penetration in Nigeria is still low at around 8%, versus a 2018 government target of 30%, and many Nigerians still complain about slow and expensive connections–Nigerians are relatively heavy users of everything from social networks to e-commerce.
The mobile internet and Wi-fi might have made life easier but we have cyber cafés to thank for connecting young people like me to the rest of the world for the first time.