16 August 2012

Angola's 4G Upgrade - Is the Future Bright for the Country's Rural Poor?

The improved coverage of 4G technology may provide new opportunities for Angola's rural communities.

With a reported 36.6% of Angola's population living on or below $2 a day while the country's elite enjoy the spoils of oil wealth, Angola could be seen as the embodiment of sub-Saharan inequality. The oil sector accounts for 80% of government revenue and over 90% of exports, but employs less than 1% of the total labour force. And while a select few enjoy access to Angola's vast resources, the economy remains undiversified and millions struggle to get by.

As the August 31 general elections approach, it is this issue of inequality that appears to be at the forefront of political debate. The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), Angola's main opposition party, has pledged to fight the country's endemic poverty which it claims the ruling People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) has perpetuated. Meanwhile the MPLA, which has been in power since the country gained independence in 1975, is promising to introduce a minimum income and subsidies for the elderly if it wins.

UNITA claim that the MPLA leave the majority of Angolans suffering while a small elite enjoy luxurious lifestyles with expensive homes and fast cars. The current project to upgrade Angola's phone network to high-speed fourth-generation (4G) services has been viewed as another example of an elite-focused deal with the potential to widen the inequality gap. But could this new technology in fact be a tool for the emancipation for Angola's poor?

AfriTech

Fourth generation (4G) networks enable considerably faster download speeds for data traffic and allow wider coverage.

Over the past ten years, the number of mobile connections in Africa has grown by an average of 30% per year, and Africa continues to be the fastest growing mobile market in the world. And the lack of opportunity and capital to purchase a computer for most has led the phone industry to provide more services to the continent, including more streamed content and more computing of devices.

Smartphone penetration has been staggering considering levels of poverty, and some estimated that the majority of Africans will own a Smartphone within five years. This is probably over-optimistic, but greater consumer usage of these technologies and investment in creating affordable handsets by major companies could make mobile phones more accessible to the masses as each new generation of network and hardware aims to do more for less.

Where we're going, we don't need roads?

More people in sub-Saharan Africa now have access to mobile devices than clean drinking water or electricity, and there is the danger that many may come to face what some call 'techno dystopia' in which "'high tech' meets 'low life'" and we see "accessible technology floating around...[a] grim economic scenario".

In Angola, over 25 years of conflict following independence has led to a depleted infrastructure, low access to health and education facilities, as well as poor water and sanitation supplies.

One concern regarding Angola's upgrading to 4G technology is that the country might be trying to run before it has learnt to crawl. There is a lack of technicians with the capacity to maintain and utilise new technologies while existing 3G coverage is often unreliable. Power supply is also a problem. Given the erratic power grids within Angola and wider region, generators and solar power often provide the only way to recharge mobile devices.

While mobile phones can arguably enhance access to resources and information, they cannot replace investment in public goods. For example, 4G networks might allow faster exchange of information for trade, but ultimately roads infrastructure is crucial to allow traders to take produce to markets. Better access to healthcare, education and infrastructure are inevitably the priorities for rural communities. Nevertheless, there is hope that 4G could confer benefits to Angola's rural poor.

Going the extra mile

According to development economist Jeffrey Sachs, poverty primarily results from the lack of access to markets, emergency health services and education. In Angola, corruption and politics also clearly contribute to widespread poverty. All of the socio-economic and political dynamics underlying these shortcomings clearly need to be addressed, but, at the same time, could 4G and related technologies end rural isolation as we know it?

As well as enhanced speeds, what differentiates 4G from its predecessors is its potential to bridge the "last mile dilemma" and reach remote communities. Through enabling rural dwellers to check commodity prices before heading to the market, use GPS technology for the effective cultivation of fragmented plots of land, and access a convenient platform for selling and purchasing goods, among many other things, mobile technology has the potential to improve economic opportunities and strengthen social networks.

All this, however, is easier said than done of course. Together with the basic infrastructure problems, bureaucracy and corruption are also stumbling blocks to development. But scrape through the layer of doubt that sweeps across many Western media's stories about the continent, and you might find that the region has some of the most inventive and creative entrepreneurs. Cutting-edge mobile technologies are helping to solve some of Africa's development problems. Kenya's iCow mobile application, for example, helps small-scale farmers maximize their returns by providing valuable information. Mobile banking which is designed to help pay utility bills and send money between individuals is also proliferating, while e-midwifery and apps such as medAfrica have had successes in linking citizens to medical practitioners.

The motivations behind the development of 4G technology might not have been focused on the rural poor, and it will in all likelihood be the oil industry that reaps the initial benefits. However, as seen in the likes of Kenya, Rwanda and elsewhere, there is no doubt room for rural communities to take advantage of the technology and use it as a tool of emancipation.

Mariana holds an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics and has particular interest in Lusophone African markets and entrepreneurship in Africa

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