It’s hard not to believe we are living in a sci-fi. Amazon, Apple, Google, and others have us talking to machines every day. Robot dogs are real now, and Jeff Bezos is taking people on space trips. Now there’s talk about a metaverse — another sci-fi-inspired concept. Neal Stephenson coined the term “metaverse” in his 1992 science-fiction novel “Snow Crash.”
A combination of “meta” (meaning beyond) and “universe”, metaverse refers to digital spaces that portray actuality through the use of virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR). Top celebrities such as Ariana Grande and Travis Scott have held concerts inside Fortnite. That signals that this concept is catching on in some parts of the world.
Recently, Facebook changed its name to Meta to demonstrate its focus on building the metaverse. Some have criticised the company’s move, tagging it as an attempt to capitalise on a concept it did not create. Facebook is not the only company developing the next computing platform. Other tech giants such as Microsoft, Samsung, Amazon, Tencent, among others, have been developing software and hardware to aid in the rebirth of mobile internet.
Facebook has invested heavily in virtual and augmented reality by developing hardware such as its Oculus VR headsets, AR glasses, and wristband technologies. VR is currently primarily used for gaming, but the metaverse would allow people to do almost anything — work, play, hang out, attend meetings, and even go to the movies.
Facebook announced in September that it would invest $50 million in collaboration with other companies to responsibly build the metaverse. The company already has more than 10,000 employees building consumer hardware like AR glasses that Zuckerberg believes will eventually be as ubiquitous as smartphones.
But the metaverse is not just about VR/AR. Blockchain technology and web3 are integral parts of this concept. The rise of cryptocurrencies and NFTs signal a shift into digital currencies and property that makes a digital world plausible. Platforms such as Decentraland use blockchain technology and are decentralised, unlike how traditional social media companies are obsessed with content control.
As seen with the rise of Web 3, people often prefer to operate in a system where they will not be under the watchful eyes of a perceived big brother. As a result, a decentralised system would be preferable. Decentraland has seen more than $50 million in total sales of land, avatars, usernames, and virtual outfits. A Decentraland plot sold for $900,000 million to Republic Realm, a digital real estate fund. Nigerian music grandmaster Don Jazzy recently showed he owns land in Decentraland.
Metaverse enthusiasts have compared the struggle to buy virtual land to the scramble for domain names in the early days of the internet. In the early days of the internet, there was no social media or content platform. No one knew for sure what the internet would become. It is the same way with the metaverse today, so it makes sense that people want to be early participants.
How soon can Africa catch up?
Everyone is trying to be an early partaker in building the metaverse. Africa has the youngest population in the world, and that should make it a potential growth market for this new wave. However, it will take more than a zealous young population. Africa’s in-house challenges might still be roadblocks against its potential.
The internet is no longer a luxury in Africa. But, it remains expensive. Consequently, internet penetration is quite slow on the continent. At 22 per cent, the continent has the lowest internet penetration rate in the world. However, this problem might not be peculiar to Africa. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) recently released a report saying that 37 per cent of the global population has never used the internet. But that is just the internet. How do people who struggle to pay for internet subscriptions become active buyers of NFTs and VR/AR equipment?
Operating in the metaverse requires us to use gadgets, many of which the average African cannot afford. 36 per cent of the continent’s population live in extreme poverty. That’s the reason many don’t have smartphones. Even the educated population struggle with high unemployment rates. Also, high inflation rates and weak currencies are making many Africans spend most of their earnings on food. Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country, has maintained the status of the world’s poverty capital for three years. It’s difficult to bring digital advancement to a hungry demographic.
More so, 5G technology will play an important role in the growth of the metaverse. But Africa’s infrastructure has barely housed 4G. Technological advancement is evolutionary. It often requires the acceptance of new ideologies before enabling software or hardware. This is why many Nigerians are financially excluded despite a fintech boom. It’s also why corporations that do not agree with remote work have less need for online conferencing. To this end, Meta promised that Facebook Reality Labs would invest $150 million in an education program to assist with tech development and train people to use augmented and virtual reality tools.
But in Africa, there is still a high level of illiteracy. An African Union report said Africa’s literacy level had improved to 70 per cent. But that is still behind the global average of 90 per cent. It’s partly why several African businesses still operate offline rather than leverage the internet. Even countries with higher literacy levels are yet to fully grasp the context of the metaverse.
The metaverse will most likely deepen people’s immersion in their gadgets, which means energy consumption will increase. Meanwhile, some African countries still struggle with low power supply. Nigeria has the largest energy-access deficit globally, with 43 per cent of its population not having access to grid electricity. Increasing the energy supply also implies increasing greenhouse emissions. Renewable energy is in its nascent stage in Nigeria and Africa, with barely enough cheap alternatives to fossil fuel consumption. Active participation in the metaverse might mean more fuel consumption in countries like Nigeria, where most people depend on generators as alternative power sources. Consequently, that will make the country’s pledge to achieve net-zero emission by 2060 an empty promise.
In the metaverse, NFTs and cryptocurrencies will be the equivalent of fiat currencies in our current economy. The value of cryptocurrencies like MANA and SAND, designed specifically for the metaverse, has skyrocketed recently. Africa has the fastest cryptocurrency adoption rate globally, driven by peer-to-peer (P2P) transactions. But cryptocurrencies are frowned at by the governments of some of Africa’s top markets. As a result, these governments have already limited active participation in the metaverse.
Written by Adekunle Agbetiloye and Oluwatosin Ogunjuyigbe