We often think of legal tech as spanning the globe and knowing no borders. And that is right in large part except for one significant catch: internet access. As Thabo Magubane, a legal tech researcher in South Africa explores, without reliable internet access the hope of leveraging technology to change how the legal sector works faces a serious challenge. Try offering SaaS solutions and legal information platforms in a region where many people may have limited internet access. However, as Magubane explains, there is hope and things are changing for the better. That in turn increases opportunities for legal tech growth across Africa.
There are several African legal tech startups with aspirations to reach people through online platforms. But between them and their goal stands a gigantic barrier – a significant number of users do not have reliable access to the internet.
The Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development reported that about 80% of investments maintain broadband networks rather than connecting the unconnected. According to The Mandela Rhodes Foundation Africa still remains the region with the lowest internet penetration rate at 39% of the population, compared to a global average estimated at 60%.
Also, Africa faces higher costs for internet access than other regions. As a Mandela Rhodes Foundation analysis stated, a key cause of Africa’s internet deficiency is cost. ‘Africa has the most expensive internet in the world. According to the Alliance for Affordable Internet, Africans pay on average 8.8% of their monthly income to purchase 1GB of data, compared to 3.6% in Latin America, and 1.5% in Asia’.
I.e. not only does Africa have less internet penetration, but relative to local incomes it can be more expensive than elsewhere in the world.
One project that has raised hopes is Starlink – a SpaceX project that aims at providing low-cost internet access by using low-Earth orbit satellite technology. Business Insider reported that ‘rather than sending internet signals through electric cables, which must be physically laid down to reach far-flung places, satellite internet works by beaming information through the vacuum of space, where it travels 47% faster than in fibre optic cable’.
Well-known telecoms companies such as Ericsson, Nokia, and Qualcomm are also making strides in Africa.
What Does this Mean for Legal Tech Startups in Africa?
One question that always comes up is whether African legal tech startups stand a chance of truly prospering? There are a number of legal tech startups in the African region, such as Lenoma – a Southern African-based legal tech company that sells legal documents and other services online.
Lenoma shows that online legal service providers are feasible in the African region and people are slowly getting used to them. However, there is still more room for growth and some friction can be attributed to users having unstable internet connections.
However, Africa does have a chance of one day going entirely online. The use of satellite technology to bypass the burdensome process of installing fibre optic cables is a great opportunity, as a lack of infrastructure is one of the root causes of internet connectivity issues.
And, as internet traffic increases in the coming years, African online service providers, including legal tech companies, will have far more opportunity to grow.
About the Author:
Thabo Magubane is a Legal Tech Researcher, Alibaba Cloud Associate Trainee, and Final-Year LLB 4 Candidate in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He is not affiliated with any of the named organisations in the article.