Internet problems destroy the dreams of Yemeni youth for startups and studies

Because of years of war and economic crisis, Yemen’s slow and expensive internet means that the country’s youth are missing out on study and work opportunities

  • The internet in Yemen is among the slowest and most expensive in the world

  • Lack of internet access hampers entrepreneurs and students

  • Advocates say reforms and reforms can boost the economy

By Maya Jebeli

ADEN, March 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Yemeni businessman Obaid al-Bakri launched a ride-sharing app to provide safe transportation in the southern city of Aden, but his plans soon ran into trouble – the internet was so slow, no one was able to connect to the internet to book a ride.

“Aden has been quite fertile ground for a ride-sharing app,” said the 34-year-old TakeMe founder. “We had all these security issues with regular taxis, where passengers stole drivers or vice versa…but the internet was very slow.”

Amid years of war and economic crisis, Yemen’s slow and expensive internet limits access to daily services from banking to online classrooms and transportation. For young people, it can mean the loss of economic and educational opportunities.

Bakri said the five TakeMe investors have spent thousands of dollars since 2020 trying to make the app as lightweight as possible to work on mobile internet, but to no avail.

Yemen has the slowest internet speed in the world, according to web analysis service SpeedTest, with an average download speed of 0.53 Mbps. The next slowest, in Turkmenistan, is six times faster.

Internet penetration rates are also low. More than 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 the online reference library DataReportal.

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

This is due to aging and unmaintained internet infrastructure damaged by more than seven years of conflict, and the sharp depreciation of the local currency that has severely limited purchasing power in recent months.

Getting online is more difficult in rural areas.

“I live in the countryside and the internet is very slow there,” said Bilal Sellal, 25, a dermatology student at the University of Aden.

He was already spending pocket money on public transportation to get to the university, which makes internet connectivity a luxury.

“It costs me $10 for about 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 education? ‘forget that’

When the University of Aden closed its doors during periods of fighting and the COVID-19 lockdown, students and faculty found low-tech solutions as bandwidth in Yemen faltered under the weight of online lessons.

“Would you like to watch an additional lecture or course on YouTube? Forget it,” said Abdul Razzaq Hakam, a 26-year-old medical student.

Instead, he asked his friends abroad to download the lectures to external hard disks to bring with them, and then distributed the materials on flash drives.

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

“Our professors were sending us 10 to 15 audio messages on WhatsApp, each five minutes long — that’s how we’re going to do the audio recordings,” Akil said.

He said – along with Hakam and Sellal – that they intend to look for work abroad after graduation, adding to the “brain drain” from their home country.

“The world is connected to the internet, and we are simply not,” Aqeel said.

Those willing to pay a premium can subscribe to the state-backed company AdenNet, which has sometimes stayed online when other providers were cut.

But AdenNet has limited subscriptions to its service, creating a black market that has seen modems sell for several hundred dollars — dwarfing the average monthly income.

missed opportunities

Frequent power cuts added to Yemen’s problems on the Internet.

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

“Some try to go to hotels to get internet and electricity, but sitting in the lobby costs them a lot,” said Aisha Warraq, director of programs at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies.

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

Al-Warraq said she knows many young Yemenis who have missed interviews or presentations because a power outage prevented 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 war-damaged devices.

This could bring a much-needed boost to the economy, said Internet researcher Nadia al-Saqqaf, 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 will increase their GDP per capita by 1% each year,” Al-Saqqaf said.

Since Yemen has few women-friendly internet cafes, promoting one-to-one contact can increase women’s economic inclusion. It can also connect farmers and other productive sectors in a global network and allow for mobile banking.

“A whole new world can open up,” Al-Saqqaf said.

Related stories:

Costs, Literacy and Design: The Invisible Barriers to Addressing the Digital Divide

‘Our educational lifeline’: The US’s battle over broadband rages on

‘Losing hope’: The collapse of COVID-19 in India exposes a new front in the digital divide

(Reporting by Maya Gebeilym, Editing by Helen Popper. Please refer to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org )

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.