For 15 pulas ($1), *Kefilwe, a 25-year-old unemployed marketing graduate, can access one hour of internet at Unique Solutions, an internet café in Monarch township in Francistown, Botswana’s second-largest city. She is looking to apply for Chema-Chema, a 500 million pulas ($37 million) government funding programme for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Kefilwe has a smartphone and access to mobile data packages from her mobile network operator, Orange. But the only package she can afford only provides access to Facebook, TikTok, X, and WhatsApp for 60 pulas ($4.40) a month. To access the Chema-Chema website, the internet cafe is her most economical option as she cannot afford data bundles which provide access to the rest of the internet beyond social media.

In Botswana, 10GB of mobile data can cost as much as 1,400 pulas ($103). (Image source: Ephraim Modise/ TechCabal)

“I don’t have that kind of money for capped data bundles. [At an internet café], I can browse freely knowing that my data usage is not capped,” she remarks. “Plus, I can beg for more minutes from the owner if I’m not done when my time elapses.”

Kefilwe is one of thousands of young people in the country who still rely on internet cafés to access the World Wide Web. Although internet penetration in the southern African nation currently stands at an impressive 74%, the cost of the internet is still one of the highest in Africa, presenting internet cafés as an alternative.

“We receive about 60 customers daily who use the internet for social media,job applications, school projects and other services like printing and scanning documents,” said Tshepo Kelentse, founder of Unique Solutions. 

Tshepo Kelentse wants to open two more internet café branches in the next three years. (Image source: Ephraim Modise/TechCabal)

He started the internet café in 2021 after realising the need for internet services in the Monarch township. He has since opened another branch and plans to open two more in the next three years to keep up with the demand.

Although he appreciates his business’s role in promoting internet connectivity in the country, he alludes to the fact that it is a tough business to run. “I planned this to be a self-service café, but for every client, I pretty much have to walk them through the whole process of connecting, which is a challenge when I have a lot of clients,” Kelentse said.

He also points to the expenses associated with running an internet café, which include rent, internet, and maintenance of machines. He can make upwards of 1,000 pulas ($74) on a good week, but those good weeks are hard to come by, especially on school holidays as students are some of his most valuable clients. 

Apart from the internet, cafés offer other services including printing, emailing and PC repairs. (Image source: Ephraim Modise/ TechCabal)

His café has only three computers, so to ensure that they are used as efficiently as possible, he encourages customers who use the café internet for social media browsing to connect to his internet on their phones instead. “Lots of young people come here for ‘Fezana’ (slang for Facebook) and TikTok, so I just put in the WiFi password for them and let them browse for the same rate as those using the PCs.” 

Expensive internet does not just affect customers of internet cafés but also the internet cafés themselves. Tshepo Monageng started his café in 2017 after identifying a gap in the market for internet services in low-income townships in Francistown. To provide internet, he has purchased an Orange router that claims to provide speeds of up to 10MBps for 550 pulas ($41) per month. 

Tshepo Monageng has been running his café for over five years. (Image source: Ephraim Modise/TechCabal)

But he rarely gets even 5MBps of speed during the day when business is the most active. According to available data, an internet cafe needs a speed of at least 25MBps to service customers efficiently. “So when you are having lots of customers, those who came for connectivity end up leaving because of the slow internet,” Monageng told TechCabal.

To compensate for the client’s loss due to unreliable connectivity, he offers other services such as CV drafting, printing, laminating, and emailing. Those auxiliary services have proven to be a hit with his customer base, as most of them are not computer literate enough to, for example, send emails. Additionally, most households do not have access to their own printing or laminating devices, making the Internet café the perfect service provider for those.

In the seven years that Monageng has been in business, foot traffic to his café has been increasing despite the boom in smartphones and data packages. He alludes to the fact that most internet packages by network operators do not cater to low-income customers. 

Internet cafés use household-grade internet routers to service customers. (Image source: Ephraim Modise/ TechCabal)

Although he is happy with the growth, he wishes to attract more enterprise and government clients, which would significantly boost his business operations. “There are lots of businesses around, but they choose to go into the town centre to get the same services we offer for a lesser price.” To promote the business and attract these prospective clients, he relies on word-of-mouth marketing, social media promotion and listing on Google Maps.

Within the next five years, he would like to open more branches, acquire bigger printers and laminating machines, and expand his product offering to include other services such as branding.

Other cafés have even bigger plans. 

Take Robert Golebetswe, for example, who plans to introduce a subscription service to entice clients to become recurring customers. He has also been running his internet café since 2017, and seeing the value of his services, he thinks a subscription service would be an essential addition. How exactly he plans to implement it is still hazy, but he dreams nonetheless.

Robert Golebeletswe would like to see his internet cafe continue offering services beyond operating hours. (Image source: Ephraim Modise/ TechCabal)

“Every day, I have to beg customers to go home because I have to close shop, so imagine if I could still provide them with the same rate while they are at home,” Golebeletswe remarks. He admits it would be a challenging service to implement, but he swears he will implement it.

Golebeletswe believes that both the private and public sectors need to support him to grow his business and ensure that internet cafés continue to play a significant role in providing internet access, especially in low-income neighbourhoods. 

From the private sector, he recommends businesses using local cafés instead of driving into town to get the same services available from a stone’s throw away. From the government, he believes access to funding to implement some of his expansion plans, including the subscription service, would go a long way.

“Beyond being just a business, cafés are also a sort of community service, helping our people to stay connected,” Golebeletswe says.

A few minutes after Tshepo helped her log into the Chema-Chema application portal, Kefilwe calls him to assist with browsing through the portal. It’s an inconvenience that he is accustomed to and seems somehow content with. He apologises to this reporter for the interruption in our conversation.

“Eish, go a bo go simologile,” he remarks as he leaves his seat to assist the customer, pro bono. Loosely translated, he is saying, “Duty calls!”

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