It’s a usual, busy Thursday evening and the smell of fresh coffee at a certain makeshift café, popularly known as kijiwe, on Pemba street got passersby and the regulars to stop and have the Sh100 drink.
Men aged in their late 30s sat around the wooden benches while teasing, ‘Sasa nani huyu anko VPN?’
They all burst into laughter while taking turns to discuss the current scenario of internet slowdown and nuisance of being unable to download videos.
One among them, a watchman and a caretaker of the building nearby the kijiwe tells Life&Style magazine that for him, internet and social media is just to keep him entertained.
He uses not less than 500mb of data per day to access videos on YouTube and WhatsApp.
“I have to sit here almost 10 hours every day guarding people coming in and out of the building. Yes, I have to be vigilant and aware but I also need to keep myself awake and entertained. Currently, it is very boring and dull without internet. So, I sit around this kijiwe after my workhours, which is my current entertainment, to share and listen to a story or two,” the watchman tells.
Tanzanians have been facing limited internet services, social media inaccessibility and in some cases mobile money logjam for over 10 days now.
This has impacted the lives of many, professionally and personally, compelling people to rely on other means.
One among them is VPN, literally meaning virtual private networks, which have been the talk of the town since then.
If you’re a bit of a techie, then you are probably part of it already and somewhat acquainted but if you’re someone who thinks gigabyte is something to do with snake attacks and not computers, then that just becomes a slang-word for you and you wonder what is the fuss about.
Whether it is naming a party after it – ‘VPN night party’, creating nicknames – ‘Anko VPN’ or creating viral memes, every Tanzanian is talking about it whether they literally use it or not.
Boon or a bane?
A 30-year-old woman with a demanding white-collar job who wishes to stay anonymous, tells Life&Style magazine that she spends most of her free time watching YouTube videos.
Her pass time is listening to narratives on the channel, solving riddles and sharing memes on WhatsApp.
“Personally I don’t have a Facebook, Instagram or a Twitter account but I usually binge-watch videos on YouTube,” she says.
She spends about 5 hours a day on social media. But the current internet slowdown has not only affected her personally whereby it is hard for her to communicate with her loved ones who live abroad but also it has had an impact on her professional life.
“I still work remotely and it has been very difficult to access several sites and apps on my computer and this has affected my productivity at work,” she reveals.
But for Ozz Razak, a health strategist based in Dar es Salaam says it is a boon for his children.
“I understand the situation of internet slowdown has put a lot of processes and businesses at jeopardy. I mean, you have to understand we are moving with digitalization and we depend on it. I myself was at BRELA today to register my new gym but the online registration was down and non-functional, it took a really long time to get done with the process.
But there is this other way of looking at it; our children. They are on their gadgets, social media and internet literally the whole time. I advocate for children to be active physically and as parents we need to look at the current scenario in a positive manner, children are now going out to play more outside than sticking their eyes to the gadget,” he says.
For the past six years, the number of people going online has doubled in Tanzania, from 9 million in 2013 to over 23 million people in the start of 2019, Tanzanian Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) report shows.
According to TCRA, mobile internet subscribers in the country surpassed 27 million at the end of September 2020 amid growing public dependency on the internet for executing day-to-day activities.
Internet penetration has made social media a powerful tool that connects people and now more than ever, Tanzanias rely on it for not only for interaction but also for marketing their products and services.
One among the millions of Tanzanians who depend on internet to earn their daily bread is Olympia Fraten, who owns a ladies clothes boutique in Sinza.
To advance her products to a wider audience, Olympia began advertising via social media some time last year.
“Social media means everything to me. About 70 per cent of my customers are via social media – they see my products and then either order online or walk-in to my shop,” says Olympia.
She spends about 10-12 hours daily on WhatsApp and Instagram to post goods, responding to clients and solving any challenges related to it.
For the past one week, Olympia has been severely affected by internet slowdown and social media unavailability.
“It’s a big challenge for me. I mean I have lost orders, I cannot get in touch with my old or new clients, I no more receive any inquiries or orders, I cannot respond to messages and I am actually losing customers,” she says.
All Olympia can do right now is send out normal text messages to selected customers because bulk SMSs have been blocked currently by her network.
She wishes this adversity to end soon so she can get back to doing business normally.
Elice Mayandika, a baker based in Dar es Salaam is facing a similar situation just like Olympia. The self-employed baker tells Life&Style magazine that if this continues, she might have to close down her business and look for a salaried job.
“I depend on social media such as WhatsApp to communicate with my customers because I understand that with busy schedules, not everyone can meet you face to face. Currently, I can neither send sample pictures of my cakes to anyone who inquires nor I can download any image I receive from them. In fact, I used to get about 3-4 orders per week but for the past 10 days, I have not received a single order. It’s a shame because I depend on weekly earning to run my house and put food on the table for my children,” Elice tells.
Elice easily used to make Sh90,000-120,000 per week from her orders but currently she makes nothing.
“I have been advised by my friends to download thing such as VPNs and the like, but I am not a techie and I don’t understand all this. I have no choice but to patiently wait or close down my business,” she tells.
The big talk on social media
The big conversation on internet slowdown, social media throttling and solutions to make internet work is a testament to how Tanzanians have moved to the world of digitalization.
But the irony was that the people who complained of limited internet and social media, were on the same platforms discussing the issue.
Hashtags such as #KeepitOn has gained popularity among Twitter users in Tanzania.
Zaina Foundation, a Not-for-Profit organisation whose mission is to empower girls and women in technology through digital security and privacy capacity building workshops and trainings, in one of their tweets wrote: “Network interference in Tanzania, women are affected economically most of their online businesses stopped. #KeepitOn”
Twitter Public Policy tweeted its statement on the matter too: “Ahead of tomorrow’s election in #Tanzania, we’re seeing some blocking and throttling of Twitter. #TanzaniaDecides2020. Internet shutdowns are hugely harmful, and violate basic human rights and the principles of the #OpenInternet #KeepItOn.”
ProtonVPN and Netblocks organisation also took it on twitter confirming that the widespread disruption to social media across Tanzania has had high impact on Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram and Google services on major mobile networks and that some of the VPN signups are also impacted because SMS verification code messages are being blocked.
Solutions such as downloading a virtual private network app was one of the biggest debates and conversation that took place on these platforms. But how safe and permissible is it?
Is there a law?
A lawyer based in Dar es Salaam who also doubles up as an Assistant Lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM), says, “According to section 122 (b) of the Electronic and Postal Communications Act of 2010, the fraudulent use of network services, facilities and applications is not permitted.
So, in a sense, the words VPN aren’t directly mentioned in the law but interpretation of that section could infer one to the conclusion that the use of VPN is prohibited. But this is also unsettled because the key element here is the term ‘fraudulent’, which might be subject to debate as to what amounts to fraudulent use.”
High VPN downloads
Restricted internet access has resulted in increased downloads of a VPN software. The numerous reports on outages of WhatsApp, Instagram, Google, and other internet services have seen Tanzanians massively download alternative modes of internet access. Surfshark – a privacy protection toolset, recorded a 597% increase in daily traffic to its website from Tanzania.
“We’re witnessing a spike of VPN downloads in Tanzania after disruption of internet accessibility nationwide. The increase in traffic to our website from Tanzania is the highest in three days,” says Gabrielle Racai, Communications manager at Surfshark. “Many Tanzanians complained they were experiencing problems accessing social media platforms or trying to purchase VPN software