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Witnessing the end of Somali Internet Cafes?
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By Mohamed Mukhtar
Friday, March 07, 2008

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It was 1994 when Eva Pascoe opened the world’s first internet cafe in London and now they can be seen in every corner of the world. Cybercafés offer internet access and use of software applications. In addition they also offer low-cost international calls that enable people to communicate cheaply.

The internet started to enjoy mass popular use in the early 1990s. Unfortunately it was at that time that Somalia started its nosedive towards anarchy. For the last eighteen years Somalia has been experiencing conditions without known parallels in terms of chaos and poverty yet it has not remained immune from the globalisation trend particularly in the use of the internet. In fact, the prolonged crises in Somalia seem to have truly globalised Somalis.

Somali internet cafes reflect that globalisation; they can be seen from Dubai to Nairobi to London. Internet cafes do not only generate wealth and employment but also act as social contact hubs. They bring together armchair generals who discuss constantly political developments in Somalia, boys and girls who want to engage in dating, and those who want to travel to the developed world and those who claim to know how.

The popularity of the internet is increasing exponentially but new technologies are offering alternatives which give people easy and affordable access to the internet without the need for internet cafes. Does this mean that the end of Somali internet cafes is approaching fast and will internet cafes no longer be hubs for social contact? More importantly, can we say internet cafes will not be in business unless they change and change fast?

Observant readers may say if technology is changing, surely, that is not confined to a specific society. Of course, Somalis do not have monopoly on internet cafes. However, telecommunications and remittance are the only two industries that generate wealth and employment for Somalis throughout the world. Any changes that come to either of them will greatly influence how Somalis organise their lives during an especially difficult period of multiple problems. 

Technology is making further advances and the introduction of web-enabled mobile phones, cheap broadband packages, cheap computers and free wireless hotspots are reducing the demand for internet cafes. According to the Mobile Data Association, at the end 2007, in United Kingdom, 17 million people accessed the internet through mobile phones. The head of T-Mobile, a leading mobile network operator, says, “Mobiles have taken off because they let individuals do what they have always done and want to do. The same is becoming true of mobile internet. In time, mobile broadband will have an even greater impact.”

Internet cafés are micro businesses and owners find it difficult to keep up with technological developments. The internet cafe market appears to have matured quickly and is now declining. Owners are facing strong competition and many are now stuck in this market. In these conditions they are neither able to survive or to leave and are stuck in a declining market without the resources or skills to branch out. Most of the internet cafe owners cannot leave this sector because of the capital investment they have made and the skills they have gained from this sector may not transfer well to other sectors. Owners spent a lot on site preparation and modifications and equipment purchases. Many of those who bought existing businesses paid large sums on premium or key money.

Mobile broadband is becoming widely available in rich countries and this technology will be available in poor countries in the near future so the big question is, are we witnessing the end of Somali internet cafes? 

Mohamed Mukhtar

[email protected]