Africa: Cell Phones Transform Continent's Development

18 September 2008

The rapid spread of cell phones in Africa and the rollout of broadband Internet services are narrowing the digital divide between Africa and developed countries, bringing enormous benefits to African development, says Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He spoke to AllAfrica’s Cindy Shiner.

You have said that the cell phone is the single most transformative technology for development. How would you define its importance in terms of what it has done and can do for Africa?

I think it’s a remarkable technology. It’s incredibly powerful and it’s quickly reaching the poor on a market basis. So we have something that… has tremendous power to support development…and the markets are really carrying the rapid scale-up. It’s this combination that makes the phones so important. In terms of what they do it’s a way to break economic isolation, indeed isolation of all sorts.

Rural poverty has in the past been defined almost by its isolation. Communities that don’t have motor transport, that lack basic roads, electricity – these communities live by themselves in a state of subsistence. Making business in these settings, even getting very basic information about prices of food products in local markets, being able to make a transaction, being able to hire truck services, being able to call for an emergency, has been impossible until the cell phone. [Now] what we’re seeing is cell phones spreading everywhere. Soon pretty much every village is going to have at least one because connectivity is spreading dramatically.

It doesn’t take more than a few phones to make a transformative difference in an area. We’re seeing small businesses develop by virtue of people having phones, being able to find clients, make purchases, get supplies. There’s e-banking or mobile banking, which has been pioneered in a few places, like Kenya, but I think it’s just going to spread dramatically now. And more and more we’re seeing new services added to the cell phones, and especially as we move from 2G to 3G [second- to third-generation] mobile standards I think we’re going to see an incredible burst of new uses of the phones.

The International Telecommunications Union aims to connect African cities and villages by 2015. Is this a realistic goal and to what extent might this help the continent achieve the Millennium Development Goals?

Mobile penetration is expanding dramatically. The number given for 2007 is about 250 million subscribers in Africa and the numbers are continuing to rise very, very rapidly. I would guess that the vast majority of those users have SMS available but generally not Internet connectivity by phone. But there is a lot of rapid upgrading of the mobile networks now so that in some of our areas of work, in the Millennium Villages, we have essentially 3G standards. So there’s Internet connectivity coming with the mobile phone connectivity, and that’s enabling clinics and schools and other local institutions and businesses to have wireless Internet on computers linked to the mobile networks. Now in addition, there will be a rollout of broadband, not only through wireless Internet, but a spread of fiber.

But in a large part of East Africa there still is a lack of connection of African cities to the Internet backbone other than through satellite, and that’s because the submarine cable, as far as I know, still has not been turned on for East Africa, although it’s supposed to be happening soon. There is very little fiber connecting that submarine cable to interior cities. So there’s a whole mix of problems here on moving from 2G to 3G standards on cell phone networks and connecting Africa in general, and especially East Africa, to the global Internet backbone. West Africa has made some more progress.

In 2008 there should be the first East African submarine fiber available on a commercial basis and there are some other systems that are supposedly going to be completed in 2009 and 2010 as well. And then there’s going to be a need for a dramatic increase in physical fiber, terrestrial fiber, which I think can happen partly commercially and partly through government and donor financing in future years. There will be a lot of progress, but whether every place is on broadband by 2015 one would tend to doubt. It depends a lot on how technologies evolve and the extent to which the phone networks, which will be pretty comprehensive, will carry broadband by then.

And how will broadband connectivity help in achieving the Millennium Development Goals?

I think that broadband is going to be an incredibly powerful addition to just about every aspect of life – as we’re finding it is in countries that already have it. Certainly in business it’s vital for linkages with customers, suppliers, with reducing transaction costs, with breaking monopolies, providing market information.

It will enable schools and universities throughout Africa that have almost no books or libraries right now to have access to global libraries online – an incredible wealth of information. And this will, I think, change education significantly from the primary school level up through universities and in research communities as well, which up until now have been tremendously hindered with a lack of timely access to cutting edge scientific information.

It’s going to change healthcare. We already know of the expansion of ambulance and other emergency medical services increasingly being carried on mobile networks. Broadband will enable a deeper integration of these emergency networks with the primary health system. Telemedicine will really play a role and there are some very good models in India for large-scale telemedicine based on broadband that will be transferred to Africa.

Distance education can use broadband very effectively. We – the Earth Institute of Columbia University – are now in the process of partnering with a number of African universities for sharing online material for what we call global classrooms that are linked together through Skype or Internet-based video conferencing. So I think the education side will benefit tremendously.

Financial services are supported both by mobile phones and by computers and so broadband will quickly bring financial services into communities that did not have them before.

I actually think that we’ve turned the corner on the digital divide – not that it’s closed but that a gap that seemed to be widening pretty relentlessly is now going to be narrowing in the coming years and I think narrowing quite quickly. We’ll find that it’s in business, it’s in emergency services, it’s in public education, it’s in primary healthcare, banking, distance learning, scientific communications, entertainment and all the rest, and this will make a very big difference.

For mobile phones and high-speed Internet to help Africa develop, this technology must be affordable. How can African governments help support this technological revolution to benefit their people?

I think the first thing that we’ve seen is that deregulation has been essential – taking away monopolies. That’s happened in a lot of Africa but there still is a lot of deregulation to do because some countries are clinging to monopolies either on the Internet or on the mobile network. So I’d say regulatory policy is the first thing.

The second is a long period of negotiation on the East African fiber. It was delayed by lack of agreement among the governments about tariffs and access and other management issues and I think this delay has been very, very costly.

The third is the extent to which public finance can be used to increase access. Donor countries have promised for a long time to be supporting things like computers in schools or IT systems for public health and so on and some of that is finally starting. The private sector will carry some of this… African governments can do a bit but they can do much more if they get the kind of help to do these things that has been promised from the donor countries.

How about taxes?

Taxes are also part of the regulatory environment. The phone companies have been cash cows traditionally both for governments and often for political parties. This has been one of the reasons for a reluctance in many places to deregulate, but it’s a mistaken view and a very costly one. So reducing the taxes and essentially opening up these services for broad competition is really important and a [will bring] very good economic return.

What will an equally connected Africa mean for the developed world?

All of this will be enormously beneficial for Africa’s overall development and for its capacity as a partner in providing global public goods. I think that what we’ll see is that Africa becomes a more reliable partner in trade, in becoming part of global production networks, in tourism, in cooperation on urgent [matters] such as disease surveillance and sharing meteorological data and other information that is extremely important for global information systems and global hazard management.

Another thing that all of this can do is revolutionize how development assistance works. You can’t very easily distribute aid to 10,000 communities separately and so we tended [in the past] to go through national governments. But now with IT systems one can actually have much more sophisticated aid delivery and monitoring systems with a lot more decentralization. And we know when aid reaches the local level it is far more effective and far better monitored. So I think we’re going to see from a rich IT system a whole new platform for development cooperation as well.

Can you tell us about the ICT component of the Earth Institute’s Millennium Villages Project in Africa?

[The project] covers about half a million people in a dozen countries. We have a partnership with Ericsson where the company, with incredible generosity and effectiveness, is putting mobile connectivity in all the Millennium Villages. Wherever it’s up to regulatory approvals and standards, and technologically possible, Ericsson is providing not only cell phone coverage with the local service providers but also wireless Internet connectivity.

On that basis we’re rolling out a large number of interventions in the villages, in public health, in schools, in mobile banking and agricultural finance that will be made a lot easier by the presence of the phones. We’re doing some special initiatives with the use of the phones both for training and then empowering community health workers in public health delivery. This is quite a core part of the Millennium Village strategy at this point.

Recently Ericsson completed the connectivity to one of our most remote sites, which is a camel herder and sheep and goat herder village in Kenya, towards the Somali border in a very arid region. Nobody ever in history had made a phone call from this place. Now there is not only phone connectivity, but there is wireless Internet and already a number of small businesses that are being empowered or being enabled by the fact that there is this connectivity.

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