Africa: Closing the Digital Divide

16 February 2009

In Nigeria, new subscribers are signing up with mobile phone services at a rate of almost one every second. In Kenya, they can transfer money, get exam results and even find dates using their phones. African farmers can decide what crops to plant by checking prices at local markets using their cell phones. Physicians can help nurses in rural clinics diagnose patients by "telemedicine."

This is just a sampling of the exciting age of technological innovation that is opening up in Africa. But developing information and communication technology (ICT) is posing a huge challenge -- in Nigeria, growth is so fast that networks can barely cope, and poor connectivity and congested lines are frequent problems. Across the continent, there is a huge backlog in the provision of broadband Internet.

Yet an end to the "digital divide" -- the gap between the technologies available in developed and developing countries -- is in sight.

New undersea cables are being laid which will vastly improve broadband Internet access between African countries and between the continent and Europe, Asia and North America. Third-generation (3G) mobile technology, which enables mobile phone owners to connect to the Internet via their mobile phones, is spreading. Monopolies which have inhibited growth are breaking down.

Says economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at New York's Columbia University: "I actually think that we've turned the corner on the digital divide... 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."

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) says the number of mobile phones overtook fixed telephone lines in 2001, and that the mobile phone industry in Africa is growing at twice the global rate.

Richard Bell, the chief executive officer of East Africa Capital Partners, a Nairobi-based venture capital group, believes East Africa will move within two or three years from being "one of the most backward regions in the world" for ICT to becoming "one of the most aggressive, competitive forward regions."

The new cables being installed off the coast of East Africa are expected to make an enormous difference, both in terms of improved connectivity and more affordable prices.

The cost of failure of these new initiatives would be enormous.

"The African economy, like any other economy around the world, is dependent on this kind of sector and the ICT sector is the basis for all other sectors to grow," says Sami Al-Basheer, director of the development bureau of the ITU. "We've seen the relationship between the penetration of these services in a country or in a region and the economic wellbeing of that region."

He says African leaders are fully behind the communications revolution and are willing to make the changes needed to ensure growth. But business leaders and consumers say governments need to move more quickly on regulatory issues and reducing taxes.

"Governments should not see this [the development of ICT] as a tax cow, something you can milk for money," says Michael Joseph, chief executive officer of Safaricom in Nairobi. "[They] should see it as enabling their people, enriching their people."

African entrepreneurs hope to cash in on ICT boom. A number of tech startups have emerged in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, ranging from sparsely furnished flats in residential neighborhoods to mod fishbowl-style glass and steel office units in some of the city's skyscrapers.

Moses Kemibaro is the business development director at DotSavvy Africa, which has designed web sites for some of Kenya's most prominent banking and finance institutions.

It also created a CD-ROM training course for HIV/Aids health care providers.

"It's groundbreaking because it cuts costs and delivers educational materials to a much larger, life-saving community. They used to fly people out to a conference center or to the coast; it was very costly," Kemibaro said. Now health workers can take the course anywhere in the country, even without an Internet connection, and print out a serialized certificate of completion upon passing.

Eric Osiakwan, executive secretary of the African Internet Service Providers Association (Afrispa), said a lot more work remained to be done in Africa's ICT sector, but he is hopeful about the future.

"I think the fundamental premise is that if people have access to information and people can communicate better, there's a general principle that they can better their living," he said. "In the global world today it's really about being able to use your brains. If you're able to expose [people] to access to information in a global platform a lot of interesting things can happen."

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