The international organization that governs top-level Internet domain names is taking bids on the creation of ".africa". Supporters say it will promote African businesses better than individual country names such as "dot-ke" for Kenya or "dot-za" for South Africa.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers - or ICANN - is in a period of change following the announcement six months ago that Internet domains currently dominated by dot-coms will be opened up to dot-anything.
That means there could soon be a continent-wide dot-africa domain. At ICANN's meeting in Dakar this week, the executive director of the non-profit group DotConnectAfrica, Sophia Bekele, said dot-africa would send a clear signal to businesses, customers, and everyday Internet users.
“It's easy for them to identify, versus now dot-com. Nobody knows where that is," said Bekele. "They have to read through the website to understand that it's based in Africa and the product could probably be from somewhere else and so forth. So, it's a great advantage of categorization and grouping and competition.”
Fierce competition expected in January
ICANN will start accepting new domain applications in January, and the competition is expected to be fierce. Bekele is confident that her group is best prepared for the dot-africa domain, but admits even they are not sure how far it will go.
“The vision will come once you have something, right?" Bekele asked. "So we're thinking that the .africa vision will be an individual vision, for individuals and for corporations. Who knows how they'll take it to the next level, aside from just reserving the name. Microsoft.africa means something.”
Anne-Rachel Inne is ICANN's manager of regional affairs for Africa. She warns that the continent lags far behind in Internet infrastructure, a challenge that dot-africa will have to overcome if it expects to compete with dot-coms.
Putting Africa on the Internet map
“Africa, for the longest time, has been basically not present on the Internet because of lack of bandwidth, because of lack of connectivity," said Inne. "Because we don't have connectivity, then you can't get people on the Internet, then you can't get business on the Internet.”
Inne adds that even dot-africa is too broad to address the continent's cultural and linguistic diversity. She says the real impact of the new domain program will be at the country and regional levels.
“We have a lot of big business that are coming and that will probably want to be on something like dot-africa. But the way I see it, I come from Niger, and Niger is a place where we have only about 35 percent literate people in French," Inne said. "But, you say Hausa, you say Arabic, in Tamasheq and other languages, yes. If people can get content there, then they will go for it. And they will go for something that is under dot-ne because that's where they will do their regular, everyday stuff.”
At whatever level it is used, Bekele hopes that the new domain program will correct disparities in the online economy. “People moving from .com and registering to dot-africa means that registry monies will stay in Africa and not go out of the continent. Which, definitely, money coming home is better than money going being registered with the Western companies,” Bekele said.
As a non-profit organization, DotConnectAfrica says it plans to reinvest registration revenues in African development, specifically in youth and women in technology programs.