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Cybercafes: Still Vibrant and Viable Business Model

By Wayan Vota on September 19, 2009

In reading Miquel Balsa’s post, The decline of Senegalese (and maybe all) internet cafes, I was struck by the suggestion that public internet access points would soon disappear because the business model wasn’t viable.

On the contrary, I believe that we will soon see a cybercafe renaissance, with an explosion of different, and more varied format, for three obvious reasons:

Gone and good riddance

Free Internet access is dead. And good riddance.

I am sure that Miguel and I can agree that the aid-sponsored free community cyber cafe model is dead, and this is a good thing.

I can still remember the first free Internet cafe I visited in West Africa. Funded by USAID, it was supposed to offer access to a wealth of information about NGO services to the community. Except it was only open 9-5, weekdays, and had no control over content, which means there wasn’t any in the local language.

Not that it mattered. The majority of the population was illiterate – in any language, much less the skills to surf the web. So it was populated by young boys playing games, downloading music, and skimming porn.

This model was bound to fail, but not before it also bankrupted pay Internet cafes by offering their services for free. Thankfully, big donors have mostly dropped the free cafe model, and not a moment too soon.

We sell you anything digital

Many services, all paid, but not all Internet based

Miguel made a good point – cafes only providing Internet are commodity businesses at the mercy of price wars and supplier whims. So the key to a vibrant cybercafe business is to move into related services for the same client base.

I know of successful African cybercafes that sell anything digital, from music and images off the web, to video, photos, and audio recorded in the cafe or at your event. They also had classes on advanced ICT skills like editing, video production, etc, in addition to graphic design and printing services.

The next level of cybercafe, is the cafe that has Internet access to attract the technology elite. Even though their primary revenue generation may be through food, their open internet access is what drives their customer base to the cafe. Bourbon Cafe in Rwanda or Java House in Nairobi are great examples of this Internet access as lure.

Growing, not shrinking, need for public access

Miguel’s point I most disagree with is the suggestion that there is a decreasing need for cybercafes in Africa because of 4P Computing:

Outside of tourists locations, they seem to be drying up everywhere to some degree as more and more of us travel with laptops or at the very least, wifi/highspeed data enabled phones that can do simple browsing anywhere we go.

While he and I may travel with netbooks and iPhones, the majority of Africans do not have such electronica, nor are they buying the expensive data plans that allow for mobile web access. They closely monitor their communication expenses, budgeting for Internet access out of meager daily wages.

Yet more and more business and government services, and professional social capital is moving online. Stores like Rachels’ Bargain Corner and Kenya’s eGovernment initiatives require full-screen Internet access. And with Facebook driving ICT use in Africa, the next professional networks will be virtual, not in person.

So as high-speed Internet and cool new gadgets increase usage by elites, there will be even more need for average Africans to get online, economically, through public access cyber cafes offering Internet access in multiple formats.

More than decline, this is the time to invest in African cybercafes!

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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One Comment to “Cybercafes: Still Vibrant and Viable Business Model”

  1. techmasai says:

    I was following Miquel Balsa’s point, but you also offer a powerful and interesting rebuttal