Things you can’t do on the internet – yet

The internet brings many things into people’s lives, but it can’t do everything you might hope for – yet. For the majority of net savvy Tanzanians the internet is little more than a simple, if fast and reliable, communication tool. As useful as the internet currently is, there is still some way to go before you can get what you might expect from it. Some of the things you might want to do online are unavailable as yet in countries like Tanzania. Other things are unavailable as the technology hasn’t yet caught up with peoples’ expectations.

E-commerce

The driving force in the phenomenal growth of the internet worldwide has been the opportunities for people to use it in their money making ventures. Besides the cost and time reductions resulting from email and the information gathering
powers at your finger tips via the World Wide Web, the internet has also transformed the way people carry out business transactions. Online shops like amazon.com sell everything from books to power tools – choose what you want to
buy, fill out some electronic forms, and the goods are on their way to you. However, for Tanzanians, this is currently an unattainable luxury for one simple reason – credit is simply not available to the majority of Tanzanians. E-commerce in retail is based as much in credit systems as in internet technology. Tanzanians deal in cash but cash doesn’t work online! Until
Tanzania develops a credit system that is compatible with electronic transfers of funds Tanzanians are not going to be able to fully benefit from e-commerce either as consumers or producers. Things such as the Tembo card are steps in the right direction, but it is hard to say how long it will be before Tanzanians can go shopping for their Christmas presents online.

E-delivery

While Tanzania is far behind the developed world in terms of how goods might be paid for online, questions of delivery are the same worldwide. Besides software products and purely online services it is still necessary to get purchases to people.

In the children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl painted a picture where chocolate might be delivered via the television screen. Online pranksters have spread rumours about machines which will print out pizzas. Delivery systems such as these, which meet internet users’ expectations of everything happening immediately, are, if at all possible, many many years in the future. Right now, the postal service answers delivery needs, with varying levels of speed and reliability. While some people have suggested that the growth of email might destroy postal services, until someone invents
teleportation, the internet creates the need for new services, which the postal sector will be called on to provide.

Video Conferencing and Phone Calls

Communication is what the internet was designed for. However, without true broadband connections to worldwide internet backbones, Tanzanian’s are realistically restricted to communication via email and instant messaging – speeds and connection reliability simply aren’t good enough to enable real time voice over IP phone calls or video conferencing. Voice over IP uses fixed cost internet connections to make telephone calls at reduced rates – you may have seen this service offered in internet cafes around town. In my experience, the quality of the line is usually poor – if you want to get anything done you still need to use a real phone. Video conferencing is similarly hampered – connections simply aren’t good enough to send live moving pictures and sound between computers on different networks without a lot of stuttering and moments
where the other end seems frozen in time. Until Tanzania gets its own connection to an internet backbone Voice over IP and Video conferencing are not going to be a realistic communications option in Tanzania.

The Human Touch

The internet is way behind Tanzania in one important factor – the human touch. No matter how well designed a web site is, no matter how good a service is offered, the internet cannot compete with face to face human interaction, and likely never will. Interacting with online services is inflexible compared to dealing with a real person who can bend and break rules, remember what you like or simply smile and say karibu when you walk into a shop.

Catching up

Tanzanian entrepreneurs and businesses are standing before opportunities still waiting to be seized. Tanzanian ingenuity may be able to come up with solutions to the problems of delivery and credit, or outside knowledge and experience might be drawn upon to meet these needs. The benefits of selling goods directly to foreign and local purchasers at the touch of a button would open up new possibilities to Tanzanian businesses and the capability of buying foreign products directly could similarly transform Tanzanian consumers’ lives. In order to fully bridge the digital divide, which exists in business as well as
education and communication technology, businesses must be proactive – develop ideas of how to take advantage of the internet in order to make money. ISPs, the government and parastatals such as TTCL need to work together with these
businesses in order to bring the benefits to everyone.
Originally published in Arusha Times 302

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