Bringing ICT to Africa: International & Institutional Efforts
The second round of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2005 recognized that Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) can serve as a major catalyst in pursuit of the UN's Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). ICT can help to transform services in a number of policy areas that support development and poverty reduction. The Connect Africa Summit in October 2007 brought together international institutions, African Governments and key private sector actors to consider the future of ICT connectivity towards realizing four important goals:
connecting African cities with ICT broadband infrastructure by 2012,
implementing shared access initiatives,
adopting key regulatory measures, and
developing a critical mass of skills.
While these are laudable ambitions, a number of questions remain as to how technology can be used as an enabler, and whether the commercial products and services can serve broader socio-economic development goals. This wiki page reviews the status of a number of policy areas, before commenting on the challenges and opportunities facing Africa as it embraces the ICT revolution.
infoDEV,, a partnership of international development agencies, coordinated by a secretariat housed in the World Bank.
The purpose of the conference was to complement, accelerate and reinforce existing public and private sector ICT projects and investments by targeting major gaps, mobilizing resources, and enhancing coordination between stakeholders, in support of national and regional priorities and activities.
The African Stakeholders Network (ASN),, launched in 2003, was previously charged with working with various organizations and actors in Africa to address gaps and constraints in ICT for development policy. GAID has taken on a regional role, but its framework is largely a network of networks, lacking an operational or implementational role. It provides multi-stakeholder input to intergovernmental bodies, including the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and its subsidiary body, the Commission for Science and Technology for Development (CSTD). Civil society groups have actually reported that the four-year WSIS process of stakeholder engagement on ICT issues had several limitations, particularly as it was organized by the ITU, a technical agency, rather than the UN centrally. Moreover, some argue that WSIS has been dominated by the ICT sector, with limited participation from development practitioners.
As stated in the overview, and the case studies of Ghana and Nigeria, infrastructural problems mean that services remain expensive for low-income consumers. Commercial interests continue to focus on ensuring services in urban areas. In other countries, further liberalizing regulatory reforms are necessary to encourage businesses to expand their markets. Nonetheless, many private sector companies view Africa as an under-tapped market, given its strong potential for growth. The exponential growth of the mobile market, which barely existed a decade ago and is now worth over $25 billion in 2005, is an obvious example of the potential consumer demand as investors look for new opportunities beyond the saturated markets in Europe and the U.S.
One significant challenge facing the African continent is the need to
reconcile the business-oriented incentives of operators and investors with
the socio-economic priorities of governments for the welfare of all
Africa's inhabitants. While many technology products are offered purely for
commercial gain, Africa is undoubtedly a different market that represents
fresh challenges. New business models and finance mechanisms are needed for
selling equipment and services to consumers with low incomes that are often
vulnerable to seasonal and subject to cyclic variations. Commercial players
need to find innovative solutions, which may include higher-volume business
models to target broader markets, and new financing mechanism to offer
access. Some companies have been particularly active in creating policies
to address such problems, by working with institutions such as the UN's ICT
TaskForce and the GAID. Clearly, large Silicon Valley firms such as
Microsoft, Cisco Systems, and Hewlett-Packard are involved in the
"access" discussion, and there are good examples of partnerships
with the private sector (see ICTD Initiatives in Silicon Valley report). Furthermore, a number of foundations, such as the Omidyar Network, the Skoll Foundation, and Google.org are active participants in the field. Some of these, such as the Cisco and the HP Foundations, not only offer financial contributions but also provide equipment and expertise in the form of volunteers.
Conquering the digital divide has long been a goal for private-sector trade organizations, which have begun to develop collective policy projects and innovative solutions. Since October 2005, the GSM Association Development Fund has launched a series of projects aimed at identifying and implementing new uses for mobile communications to connect the unconnected and drive social, environmental and economic development. There are several (global) pilot projects in operation.
African Governments can contribute to the process by the right investment arenas. Government should address regulatory reforms to help align the profit-oriented incentives of investors with the principle of extending access through market reforms, licensing roll-out requirements, Universal Service Fund levies, and moderating their taxation of communications services. The Connect African conference showed how creating Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) and implementing competition in the provision of connectivity can help to attract investments.
1.3. Civil Society
ICT policy is subject to the influence of national and international civil society. One notable voice is the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), an international network of civil society organizations dedicated to empowering and supporting groups and individuals through the strategic use of ICT. In a statement following the Connect Africa conference, the APC highlighted the need for new forms of corporate governance to advance ICT in Africa, and called on governments to develop national data and citizen-centered services. Other regional and national actors have actively lobbied at every levels. (A full list of WSIS participants demonstrates the wide range of stakeholders involved.) In addition, ACSIS acts as an umbrella structure, through which African groups can influence policy to ensure that strategies and programs address poverty alleviation and the appropriate use of ICT for balanced development.
2. Policy Areas
The following section offers examples of how ITC can make an impact through creating appropriate partnerships. A range of thematic "communities of expertise" have been explored through GAID, and a series of web-based networks have brought together key actors to address specific problems and disseminate best practice across policy areas. This section addresses only four key areas, but other areas are also under consideration, such as governance. ITC can also support progress in many cross-cutting areas (such as gender and youth).
ICT can help provide relevant, cost-effective solutions in the delivery of services to meet the basic problems and challenges of health care programs in Africa. In particular, IT-based health services can promote continuity of care; management and distribution of health-care resources; access to health expertise; and the wide dissemination of public health information to encourage behaviorial change.
Telemedicine systems allow the interconnection of users in the field, local clinics, regional health facilities and national hospitals, and the linkage with key international institutions and disease-related centers of excellence. At a basic level, hand-held devices are used to gather and transmit health information locally. In more advanced situations, telediagnosis is used in remote clinics to transmit x-rays and digital photographs. One useful example is a (private sector) online medical reference called "'Map of Medicine" which contains information for diagnosing various diseases and acts as a consultancy tool for health providers. The specific challenge is to assess specific country needs for telemedicine, and to analyze long-term costs of sustainability against benefits. Because IT technologies are tools for more efficient and effective delivery of health program, any assessment of their use should be in relation to the overall health-care needs of the country.
Wireless communications technologies also can be used to operate sustainable health systems for the poor in an environment of limited infrastructure. IT-based solutions in resource-poor environments include
systems for health information and readiness,
health education and training,
drug supply and inventory tracking,
treatment procedures and protocols, and health-care resource tracking and support in remote areas.
GAID is currently leading a collaborative process in conjunction with the World Health Organization (WHO),, UN agencies and a group of regional commissions and academic and research groups.
2.2. Education infoDEV has been particularly active in the education arena. This year it coordinated a comprehensive study Survey of ICT in Education and developed an accompanying wiki-page which examined the current landscape of African ICT educational initiatives. One salient issue is the need for better coordination among donors, governments, civil society, universities, and the private sector. The challenge has been compounded by different organizations having different objectives in collecting data to serve their various constituencies. A lack of information-sharing has impacted upon planning. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many countries and donor agencies are struggling to keep track of ICT/education projects. There are not enough control mechanisms, and often lessons learned from these projects are not shared. Furthermore, there is no consolidated information resource, which infoDev is now seeking to resolve. While much relevant data collection has already been gathered, the results are scattered across a number of publications and databases (many of which are not widely known) and held within individual organizations, where it is not easily accessible to the education community and the public.
GAID supports the goal of locally led, bottom-up initiatives, which are needed to introduce ICT into schools and communities to aid teaching and learning. Partnerships have been formed between UNESCO, Virgina Tech University and private-sector actors to promote ICT competencies for teachers. Higher Education Networks have also enabled collaboration and there are schemes in place, such as the African Virtual University and the Information Technology Centre for Africa
Naturally, the need for locally relevant educational content is paramount. Local appropriation is vital so that communities and groups can select, adopt and adapt communication tools, allowing them to remain rooted in their own socio-economic and cultural processes.
The leading actor in this area is the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which has developed an Internet-baed initiative for rural agricultural communities. The Programme for Bridging the Rural Digital Divide (launched at WSIS in Dec 2003), offers a strategic approach that takes incorporates rural communities, service providers, national government and policy-makers. Collaboratively initiated pilot projects are in progress in several areas, to support sourcing of agricultural information and facilitate networking with other communities and regions. The field of e-Agriculture includes:
Natural resource management: using ICT to encourage "precision farming" -- using accurate, up-to-date weather forecasts, and early warning systems;
Online agricultural market information systems: data collection via mobile phones, with real-time data processing and analysis of national market pricing. In short, market information is provided via the Internet to a mobile network of traders and farmers. Two specific examples are DrumNet, which is designed as marketing, financial and information services for mainstreaming resource-poor farmers. It combines information, commodity transaction services and financial linkages into a single business service model that provides access to markets, market information and credit for the rural poor; and TradeNet, which allows users to register their mobiles and get SMS alerts of prices and offers.
Often the implementation of this technology is highly dependent on support systems being in place, such as training services and finance/credit systems. Other challenges include overcoming farmers' resistance to using technology and changing selling practices that have been long rooted in the farming community. Another factor is technology diffusion. Often the full benefits of agricultural research cannot be realized until the research results are appropriately communicated, especially to farmers with limited holdings. Moreover, there is often a large gap between the productivity that modern research makes possible and the actual productivity realized by the vast majority of small farmers. In the months ahead, FAO will be working to establish mechanisms to actively engage all global stakeholders and further information will become available. In the meantime, the UN System Network on Rural Development and Food Security offers a pool of useful resources.
2.4. Entrepreneurial / Finance
The broad goal in this area is to improve people's lives through the delivery and availability of"
funding or incubator schemes,
venture capital promotion, and
investment funds, including micro-financing for SMEs, through ICT.
The action partnerships in formation under GAID represent significant steps to link the public and private sectors with civil society through cross-sectoral, multi-stakeholder platforms. GAID is a relatively young framework, and over the past year it has been laying the foundations for its future work. Its activities are to be continually monitored by the secretariat and reported periodically to its Steering Committee and Strategy Council. An external evaluation will be conducted in 2008 to provide a comprehensive assessment of activities, which will form the basis for the next year's work streams, with subsequent evaluations taking place every two years. Systematic measurement and evaluation processes need to be put in place to monitor and assess progress, taking into account information-sharing across and between the various constituencies.
Any initiative to promote access should include consideration of what constitute appropriate platforms. It should also factor in issues such as language and illiteracy levels. Although broadband will serve as an important vehicle for helping people, it should not be forgotten that radio is often the most accessible, economical and popular means of communication, especially in rural areas. Citizens in rural areas will require help and education to guide their selection of the services that are most applicable to their needs.