It's always a challenge to generalize a continent as culturally, socially, and economically diverse as Africa, but it's clear that African countries share a need for a more robust information and communications sector. Many nations suffer from resource cleavages between urban and rural areas, low levels of education, the brain drain of educated citizens to wealthier regions of the world, and limited road, air, and rail transport networks. Furthermore, the business climate is risky due to small markets, nonptransparent systems of governance, time-consuming business procedures, historical patterns of monopolistic states. Modern communications systems could alleviate many of these problems. African nations and their investors and multi-lateral partners are racing to connect nations, towns, and people to broadband and mobile telephony as a means to stimulate economic prosperity and drastically increase human and social capital.
The demand for ICT in Africa is driven by economic needs and human development concerns. The globalized world is a knowledge-based economyin which goods and services are developed and sold over electronic networks. Information is considered currency, and connectivity provides access to the market. ICT technologies are considered market drivers. From the foreign investor's perspective, a country with reliable ICT has laid the foundation ifor efficient management, and information-sharing. Better governance and transparency ensue, because there are no longer lags in communication, and data is trackable. From a businessperson, farmer, and trader point of view, these platforms provide accurate, up-to-date market information for more informed decision-making.
ICT platforms are a channel for foreign and private investors to access Africa’s commercial market and resources. Africa is an untapped market of consumers. As William Roedy, Vice Chairman for MTV networks, noted, "(Africa) is the last remaining void." If competition and profit margins for mobile telephony are any indication, the commercial benefits are lucrative. Private firms like MTV, Microsoft, and Intel are entering the market through large scale education and health initiatives. There are also foreign investors like China, who need resources and trading partners to boost of their own growing economy.
Beyond the economic benefits, ICT is considered crucial for African nations to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Given the high correlation between ICT and human development, equitable access to ICT is another major step towards the MDGs, to eradicate poverty, provide universal education, promote gender equality, reduce child mortality, and improve mental health. Some experts speculate that as the reach of ICT expands, urban migration could slow due to the decentralization of information and opportunities. At the recent Africa Connect Conference in October 2007, the World Bank and the African Union, along with their multilateral, bilateral, and private sector partners, discussed how to best leverage ICT for the social welfare of individual countries and the continent as a whole.
The Current ICT Landscape in Africa:
The UN's International Telecommunications Union (ITU) reports that investment in African ICT infrastructure increased to USD 8 billion in 2005, up from USD 3.5 billion in 2000. The greatest advancement has been in cell phones. Mobile usage now outnumbers fixed-line penetration by nearly five to one. The African mobile market has been the fastest-growing market of all regions. It has grown at twice the rate of the global market, with a leap from 16 million to 136 million subscribers between 2000 and 2005. Mobile telephony is easy to deploy, operate, and manage. Also, the liberalization and competition of the market makes it more service oriented. These characteristics make mobile telephony affordable and accessible, and therefore a viable connectivity solution.
Video Courtesy of the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Sweden, and their Africa Project Team
ICT Trends Across Africa:
Cost: The cost of broadband access in Africa is the highest in the world; on average three times higher than in Asia. The cost barrier has limited Internet penetration to around 1%. Mobile telephony, which is more affordable, has more users.
Quality: Few Internet users have the patience for a slow Internet connection. Africa has slow connections due to lack of IXPs and reliance on satellite technology. These satellite connections have inherent delays, and do not offer competitive pricing conditions.
Governance and Policy:
Many African nations, like Ghana and Nigeria, are taking a liberalized free-market approach to ICT expansion as a means to overcome cost and access issues. However, policy coordination across the government (federal/state/local levels) and regulatory arena is often fragmented. Furthermore, keeping up with "leap-frogging" advances in technology compounds the challenges of implementation and decision-making.
Lack of Resources: Wireless technology is in demand because nations do not have the electricity capability and face copper shortages. A more serious limitation is the scarcity of Africans with the skills and knowledge to maintain, administer, and use ICT. To manage this structure, Africa needs a workforce of Internet backbone engineers, telecommunications engineers, wireless network experts, and Java and Net programmers. Furthermore, the industry need a corps of professionals who can design and implement content that is socially and culturally relevant.
Content: The rush for ICT in Africa is a story of providing access with a focus on supply-side development. There is limited focus on end users and their demand for ICT. Who will the end users be? What literacy and computer literacy levels are necessary to use these platforms? Furthermore, who is going to ensure that content is culturally welcome and relevant? An expanded online environment could increase the number of unintended complications, such as the incident involving the One Lap Top Per Child program in Nigeria., in which students were reported to be using their educational laptops to look up pornography. Like any powerful new technology, ICT offers powerful advantages and drawbacks. Its responsible introduction requires thought and sensitivity.