HARARE, Zimbabwe

Eight gigabytes of private internet data from Zimbabwe’s largest mobile network company at the beginning of 2021 cost $15, or 1,300 Zimbabwean dollars.

From March 10, the same 8GB shot to $18, equivalent to 1,560 Zimbabwean dollars, with 50GB of private internet from Econet Wireless rising from $47, which is about 4,000 dollars in local currency.

Perpetual rise of data costs

Beginning July 8, Econet, which has more than four million subscribers, revised its data pricing upwards.

Subscribers have to part with a whopping $23 to buy 8GB of private data while the highest private bundle of 50GB has been priced at the equivalent of $73.

Indigenous dealers not spared

For many Zimbabweans, like Gift Tseyani, 23, who is a high school dropout, but an avid internet-based news consumer, the latest hike in prices at Econet has crumbled his quest for news.

He said he cannot afford the cost.

The second-hand mobile phone street vendor said switching on to read news on the internet has suddenly become a luxury.

“I have stopped subscribing to private wifi internet on my mobile phone and yes, I have been a regular subscriber of private wife at Econet, but with the prices up again now, I just have to make do without internet,” Tseyani told Anadolu Agency.

Even the popular WhatsApp messaging service monthly data package at Econet now costs more than $5, leaving the price for many like Tseyani way beyond reach.

Virtual learning under threat from expensive data

The situation is worse for Harare-based Netty Chiwawa, 44, a teacher and mother of three school-aged children who had to switch to virtual learning during lockdowns to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.

Netty works as a government primary school teacher. Having capitalized on the lockdown to conduct private lessons with students to earn extra income, the stream of money has been shattered by exorbitant internet costs as she has conducted lessons virtually.

Her own children have also not been spared by the crisis — faced with a single parent whose monthly income now can no longer meet their internet requirements for virtual learning during the incessant lockdowns.

“I can’t now continue with the online private lessons because internet data is now too expensive and that means loss of business for me,” Chiwawa told Anadolu Agency, adding that it means her children have no choice but to quit virtual learning.

Government workers most affected

Teachers employed by the government, like Chiwawa, currently earn $200 monthly.

But according to the Zimbabwe Teachers Association (ZTA), teachers have gone on record demanding salaries of about $550.

For Chiwawa, at least increased wages may revive her dream of affording her children’s virtual learning amid lockdowns.

But the government has not acceded to the demands of many workers, like teachers.

Virtual trading threatened by high data costs

Businessmen like Petros Musasiwa, 36, a vehicle accessories dealer who trades his products via social media like WhatsApp, have been pounded by rising internet costs.

“I have pulled out of WhatsApp groups where I was advertising and actively selling my wares during these crazy days of endless lockdowns. Surely, I have no capacity to stomach the internet costs which have kept rising,” Musasiwa told Anadolu Agency.

For academic research consultants like Bernard Garwe, based in the capital, Harare, it is no longer business as usual as internet costs have also drained him.

“I have always depended on the internet for all my research and with the high costs now, it means hard times for me. I don’t know for now how I will cope,” Garwe told Anadolu Agency.

Garwe said he has had to see business slip out of his hands as clients ditch him because he had to constantly go offline due to unaffordable internet costs.

For Garwe, it meant he had to stay out of touch with his customer base, who are equally affected.

“People requiring my academic consultancy in terms of their university research projects are also having a torrid time during this Covid-19 era battling to virtually link up with me as they are also victims to high internet costs,” he said.

Ranked 136th worldwide for mobile data pricing in a study based on the cost of 1 gigabyte (1GB) of mobile data, neighboring South Africa’s data costs an average of $2.67 (rand 38.93) for 1GB of data, with the cheapest data costing $0.12, while the most expensive is $34.95.

Sub-Saharan Africa has six of the 10 most expensive countries in the world for internet costs, with Equatorial Guinea the most expensive at $49.67 for 1GB of internet, according to Cable.co.uk between Dec. 8, 2020 and Feb. 25, 2021.

Network companies passing costs to consumers

As internet costs hound the majority of the population and companies in Zimbabwe, mobile network companies like Econet have gotten away with murder.

“The bundle price adjustment is an average 20 percent uplift across the board, and is essentially in response to rising input costs. Our pricing review is designed to ensure viability of the business and ensure that we continue to offer a reasonable quality of service to our valued customers,” Econet said in a statement after hiking prices July 8.

Media not spared as data costs rise

But even the Content Creators Network Zimbabwe, which comprises the Centre for Innovation and Technology (CITE), News Hawks, an online news website and Magamba Television Network, has not escaped rising costs.

“Working from home is possible in the presence of a stable and affordable internet connectivity, however the latest move by Econet has complicated matters. The price hikes risk limiting people’s access to internet and keeping consumers offline, thereby infringing on the right to access to information,” Zenzele Ndebele, spokesperson for Content Creators Network Zimbabwe, said in a statement after Econet hiked prices earlier this month.

Irked by rising costs during the peak of coronavirus cases last year, the Media Institute of Southern Africa Zimbabwe wasted no time in taking on mobile network firms like Econet.

“MISA Zimbabwe is calling for a reduction of data prices and engaging various stakeholders to promote the constitutional right to access to information which plays a crucial role in promoting public health during this time. Following the declaration of a national lockdown which started on 30 March 2020, many people have been forced to conduct business online as well as working and studying from home,” it said in a statement.

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