Internet woes shatter young Yemenis’ dreams of startups and studies

Yemeni entrepreneur Obeid al-Bakri launched a ridesharing app to provide safe transport in the southern city of Aden, but his plans quickly ran into trouble – the internet was so slow, no one could get online to book a ride.

“Aden was absolutely fertile ground for a ridesharing app,” said the 34-year-old TakeMe founder. “We had all these security problems with normal taxis, where the passengers robbed the drivers or vice versa … But the internet was just too slow.”

Blighted by years of war and economic crisis, Yemen’s slow and costly internet limits access to everyday services from banking to online classes and transport. For young people, it can mean missing out on economic and educational opportunities.

Bakri said TakeMe’s five investors had spent thousands of dollars since 2020 on trying to make the app as lightweight as possible to run on mobile internet service, to no avail.

Yemen has the world’s slowest internet speed, according to web analysis service SpeedTest, with an average download speed of .53 megabytes per second. The next slowest, in Turkmenistan, is six-times faster.

Internet penetration rates are low, too. Just over a quarter of Yemenis have access to the internet, compared to an average of three-quarters across the Middle East, according to a 2022 report on the country by online reference library DataReportal.

They pay the highest rate in the region at $16 per gigabyte, compared to about $1 in nearby countries, according to a forthcoming report on Yemen by the Arabia Brain Trust (ABT), an independent think-tank that promotes sustainable social and economic development.

That is due to an aging, unmaintained internet infrastructure that has been damaged by more than seven years of conflict, and a steep devaluation in the local currency that has severely curbed purchasing power in recent months.

Getting online is even more difficult in rural areas.

“I live in the countryside and the internet is so slow out there,” said Bilal Sillal, a 25-year-old dermatology student at Aden University.

He was already spending pocket money on public transport to reach the university, making an internet connection a luxury.

“It costs $10 for around 800 megabytes – that’s not enough for me to watch a lecture and it’s too expensive for me to get more,” he said.

ONLINE LEARNING? ‘FORGET IT’

When Aden University shut its doors during periods of fighting and COVID-19 lockdowns, students and faculty found low-tech workarounds as Yemen’s bandwidth buckled under the weight of online lessons.

“Want to watch a lecture or an extra course on YouTube? Forget it,” said Abdulrazzak Hakam, a 26-year-old medical student.

Instead, he asked friends abroad to download lectures onto external hard drives to bring with them, then distributed the material on flash drives.

Nasser Akil, 25, another student at the university, said his professors used WhatsApp because it required less bandwidth.

“Our professors would send us 10-15 audio messages on WhatsApp, each of them five-minutes long – that’s how we would do audio recordings,” Akil said.

He – along with Hakkam and Sillal – said they planned to seek work abroad after graduating, adding to the “brain drain” from their homeland.

“The world is online, and we’re simply not,” said Akil.

Those ready to pay a premium could sign up to state-backed provider AdenNet, which has stayed online at times when other providers were cut.

But AdenNet limited subscriptions to its service, leading to a black market that has seen modems sold for several hundred dollars – dwarfing monthly average incomes.

LOST OPPORTUNITIES

Frequent power cuts have added to Yemen’s web woes.

When offices and internet cafes closed due to fighting or COVID-19 restrictions, people had to work from home – where power cuts can last more than 20 hours.

“Some try to go to hotels to get internet and electricity, but it costs them a lot to sit in the lobby,” said Aisha Warraq, programme manager at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies think-tank.

“Others used generators, but since the war started, there’s been a fuel shortage and prices have doubled, so many people can no longer afford fuel,” she added.

Warraq said she knew of several young Yemenis who had missed out on career-making interviews or presentations because power cuts had kept them from logging into Zoom.

“They are definitely losing opportunities,” she said.

The Arabia Brain Trust report, due to be published this month, urges Yemeni authorities to license private companies to enter the market and repair hardware damaged by the war.

That could bring a much-needed boost to the economy, said internet researcher Nadia al-Sakkaf, who contributed to the report and briefly served as Yemen’s first female information minister in 2014.

“We found that connecting 80% of Yemenis to the internet would increase GDP (gross domestic product) per capita 1% every year,” Sakkaf said.

Since Yemen has few women-friendly internet cafes, boosting individual connectivity could increase women’s economic inclusion. It could also loop farmers and other productive sectors into a global network and allow for mobile banking.

“A whole new world could open up,” Sakkaf said.

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