27 April 2010

Africa: A Quiet Revolution is Underway in Continent

Many of us take the Internet for granted, but what about locations that are too remote or economically impoverished to enjoy the hi-tech benefits of the developed world?

The Shadow Chancellor in the UK, George Osborne, illustrated in a recent speech that people in the developing world - even in the poorest of circumstances - do care about having access to technology.

In a visit to a remote village in Rwanda in 2007 he and 40 other Conservative Party volunteers were working on transforming a once derelict orphanage into a school.

When it was announced that they were going to fix up the buildings and improve the water supply there were cheers from the villagers, but the loudest shouts were received when it was announced that the school was to be equipped with a computer.

Osborne was at first surprised with the reaction - access to a computer is not a fundamental of life. But even villagers in the remotest part of Rwanda knew about computers and the Internet and didn't want their children to be excluded - as they had been - from something that could help lift them out of poverty.

While computer penetration is still low, Africans are buying mobile phones at a world record rate with take-up soaring 550% in five years. Now one third of the population in Africa owns a mobile phone.

These devices are being used in Africa to do all sorts of things never dreamt about by their creators. Transferring money via SMS between people who don't have a bank account is now a huge business.

They are also acting as a link to get information out from rural areas and onto the Internet.

In Kenya, soon after violence erupted in 2007/8 elections, Mashada- a prominent online forum - launched an SMS hotline to help share information. Several prominent Kenyan blogs also accepted comments via SMS. Perhaps most prominently, BBC Africa's 'Have Your Say' received over 3800 and published over 1300 comments after requesting updates from Kenyans.

While these innovative SMS tools are allowing more people to contribute opinions and information, none of them can yet directly reach the majority of the population, who need Internet access to see the posted messages.

Twitter is perhaps the most promising tool because of its ability to deliver messages to mobile phones. In the Kenyan elections twitter was used by journalists in trouble spots to warn people in real time to avoid these locations as well as to inform the world of what was happening.

Now, finally, Africa is getting the new high-speed Internet connections developed countries have had for years. In September 2009, a new cable linked up East Africa and this, combined with widespread mobile access, is promising to revolutionise business and communications, acting as a check on corrupt regimes by exposing malpractice and lifting areas of the continent out of poverty.

The Internet won't create success for Africa but perhaps the freedoms it brings will.

Kevin Nellies is the Commonwealth Secretariat's adviser on digital affairs.

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