I had a brief but pleasant chat on Monday with Ellen McDermott, a co-founder of the Busy Internet chain, who was back in Accra to gather insights on how the market for internet cafes and public wifi looks today.
It goes without saying that cafes retain a bigger slice of the market here than they do in the major cities of Europe and the US. Setting up a fixed broadband connection remains expensive and laborious – I’m nearly three months into dealing with Vodafone Ghana, and have got no further than establishing that our property is eligible – and wifi provision is uneven.
Vodafone is rolling out a network of wifi hotspots on a pay-as-you-go model, but is so far only up and running in an Apple reseller at the mall, three big hotels and the University of Ghana. At under 2ghc per hour the rates are competitive against internet cafes, but credit expires after a month – which is also the case on data plans for portable 3G modems. So one of the enduring benefits of internet cafes is not only that they’re cheap, but that the credit you buy lasts.
What has so far had a relatively small impact is the bundling of free or complimentary wifi in the hospitality sector. In mature markets, internet cafes have tended to lose part of their customer base – mostly casual use, but some informal business use too - when connectivity and portable wifi-enabled devices become commonplace. The beneficiaries? Plain old cafes, where the environment is often nicer and the drinks better.
It is difficult to gauge whether that process will repeat itself here, and if so how quickly. Wifi is now standard in Accra’s upscale hotels, though the tolerance for and charges associated with non-guests using it can vary. And smaller-scale cosmopolitan bars and cafes are far more common than they used to be. Some, like Cafe dez Amis, Cuppa Cappucino and Nourish Lab, already have pretty reliable wireless, while others, like Melting Moments, have the environment but not the connectivity (at least not last time I asked).
Openings like Republic – which has, by common consensus, hit a sweet spot between cool and convivial that eludes most of its peers – suggest a large and only partially met demand for relaxed, mid-market social spaces. I think of it as ‘the lingering sector’, but ‘hangouts’ was Ellen’s far better term. It’s something the internet cafes will want to watch, even if the market isn’t ready to flip away from them just yet.