September 22, 2016 12:00 pm JST

Eileen Guo and Eugenia Lee: Afghanistan's 'sneakernet' provides offline access to digital content

The crowded central market of Kota-e-Sangi, in Kabul, is a place where you can buy anything -- fresh meat, fruit and vegetables; cheap goods from China and Pakistan; even an extra pair of hands from the day laborers who line the streets each morning.

In addition to physical goods, Kota-e-Sangi has become a central node for the "Sneakernet," the offline transfer of digital content -- games, TV shows, movies, music, apps and photographs -- that exists in locales around the world with scant access to the internet.

The Sneakernet, and the content market in particular, has become an important part of Afghanistan's informal economy, as well as a key way for the population of 31.3 million to access information and entertainment. This is because, despite the $2.6 billion that the U.S. government has invested in Afghanistan's telecommunications sector, only 15% of the population has internet access. (Mobile phone coverage is better, at around 90%.)

The proliferation of the Sneakernet shows how, despite the promise of the internet, Afghanistan's near-term digital future remains low-tech. Many different groups make regular use of the digital content market, ranging from young men with few employment opportunities to women with otherwise restricted online access -- and the Taliban.

Three years ago, Masood, 22, began renting a spot in front of a mobile phone shop in Kota-e-Sangi. He had failed the university entrance exam and, with limited options, began dealing content to support his family.

Masood pays 8,000 afghanis ($117) a month for the spot, and earns roughly 400 afghanis a day at a rate of 25 afghanis per gigabyte of content, which he transfers on flash drives, SD cards, and via Bluetooth. He sees selling digital content as a temporary job; it does not produce enough income to support his extended family of 10, but in a country with 40% unemployment, it is something.

Masood fits the profile of the typical content dealer: a young man in his early 20s, with at least a high school education; basic knowledge of technology; an entrepreneurial spirit; and outside obligations that make full-time work difficult to find or maintain.

That Masood -- and so many others like him -- have turned to this informal digital content market reflects the limited opportunities provided by Afghanistan's shrinking economy, especially for disenfranchised young men, who are the most likely to take the dangerous migration routes to Europe and Australia or be recruited into violent extremist organizations.

In 2015, 190,013 Afghans applied for asylum in European Union member states, although that was just a fraction of the number that left Afghanistan. Meanwhile, media reports suggest that violent radical groups such as Islamic State are offering $700 a month to fighters in Afghanistan. In such a context, participation in the informal Sneakernet economy may be an important way to keep young men engaged in honest work in their own country.

The telecommunications sector is often cited as a tangible success of Afghanistan's 15 years of development assistance. But that does not take into account the informal content market, nor does it tell the full story of technology usage patterns in Afghanistan. Devices, SIM cards and portable storage are often shared among family members, and access differs widely among different population groups -- with a large gap in particular between men and women. In addition, content travels quickly between online and offline, facilitated in part by dealers like Masood.

Virtually everyone in Afghanistan accesses offline digital content, but how much they depend on it varies with other access to information they have. This is tied to socio-economics and gender.

More educated and wealthy users have access to popular television and radio programs; internet via 3G, or third-generation telecommunications providers and/or home or office connections; and smartphones or laptop computers. They have less need to purchase content, since they or someone they know can usually download directly via a stable internet connection. Instead, they go to a vendor only for specific content that is hard to find on their own.

ACCESS GAPS Regular buyers are generally poorer, less educated, and work in unskilled or low-skilled jobs. While some may have internet access, it is less common, and is typically accessed by 3G on a mobile phone. Because of the high prices of data plans, they depend on content dealers for entertainment and information.

Access also differs dramatically between the sexes. According to a 2013 study by the U.S. Agency for International Development, 48% of women own a mobile device, but 32% still rely on family members or neighbors to access a phone. Many women have restricted physical mobility, either because of safety or as a consequence of familial cultural restrictions, making it more difficult for them to get to crowded markets like Kota-e-Sangi.

Zardozi, a nongovernmental organization focused on women's empowerment, is trying to provide a safe alternative by training and providing microloans to create a women-only digital content network. Hasina, a program coordinator at Zardozi, said that they started this training program at the request of female business owners, who wanted more regular access to internet content such as Pinterest and YouTube, which they use as inspiration for product and service offerings at their hair salons and henna-painting services.

Of the $2.6 billion that the U.S. government has invested in the Afghan telecoms sector, $2.5 billion has come from the Department of Defense, as part of efforts to support the country's security capacity in the ongoing war against the Taliban.

Interestingly, given this enthusiasm in using technology as a weapon of war, neither the U.S. military nor the burgeoning Afghan forces have leveraged the Sneakernet, despite media reports from as early as 2008 on the Taliban's use of the network to distribute everything from ringtones to videos of military vehicles blowing up.

Taliban checkpoints across the country have at times demanded Taliban-approved (and produced) content from travelers to ensure safe passage. Meanwhile, a report produced by the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies cites the radicalizing influence of the ringtones, which take the form of hymns and often encourage listeners to take up arms against the government and foreign forces.

IDEOLOGICAL BATTLEFIELD In Afghanistan and around the world, Western governments are starting to consider the internet and social media as an ideological battlefield in the war against the Taliban, Islamic State, and other violent extremist organizations. Yet the Sneakernet has been an ideological and an actual battlefield for years. In failing to communicate on the platforms whose technology they dominate, governments are at risk of losing not just the battle, but the war.

This is a huge missed opportunity in three crucial areas of Afghanistan's development: economics, empowerment and security. Content dealing has provided jobs in a shrinking labor market, helped bridge the digital divide for some of Afghanistan's most disadvantaged populations, and served as an unchecked viral propaganda network for the Taliban.

Perhaps the real solutions will not be found in the more glamorous world of high-tech, but in the often-ignored "lower-tech" of Afghanistan's thriving Sneakernet.

Eileen Guo is the founder of Impassion Afghanistan, the country's first digital media agency, and of Paiwandgah, an online citizen journalism platform. Eugenia Lee is an independent researcher and consultant working on international development and social impact.

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