Africa – growing up, hard answers to hard problems
Africa is the birthplace of humanity, but in too many ways it is an infant that never grew up. There are many reasons for this, many sad reasons, historical reasons, geographical and ecological reasons, diseases, disorganisation, colonisation and a long list of accidental occurrences that have impeded Africa’s development. Much of Africa’s history has worked against its development. Today, there is a ray of hope, if we can only catch it.
It has been often said, so often it is almost a cliché, that information and communications technology (ICT) can be the catalyst that puts the continent on the path of meaningful development. The continent has made important strides in recent years; many regions have made great progress, but in others far too little has been accomplished. Serious health problems abound, the economic infrastructure of much of the continent is weak, practically inexistent in some parts, governments grope in the dark to deal with massive problems, food production in some regions is so precarious that fights break out over land and tribal rivalries, driven by despair, become genocidal wars.
In contrast with China, India and South Asia where the World Bank reports a dramatically decreasing incidence of extreme poverty (survival on less than US$1 per day), extreme poverty is growing in Sub-Saharan Africa. Obviously, ICTs cannot transform the world for these people overnight, but its use can help improve agricultural development, support health programmes that fight disease, improve the efficiency of governments, shore up small businesses, greatly improve access to top-grade education and information and put the continent on the path towards economic growth through effective integration with the global economy.
Earlier this month (May 12-15) in Cairo, Egypt, the International Telecommunications Union, the ITU, held its ITU Telecom Africa 2008 event. The ITU, the arm of the United Nations dedicated to ICT, organised the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) and is responsible for the ITU Telecom series of regional and global conferences and exhibitions. According to the ITU’s Secretary-General, Dr Hamadoun Touré, “…there needs to be an organisation that safeguards everyone’s fundamental right to communicate. ITU is that organisation.”
President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt inaugurated TELECOM AFRICA 2008, a forum for high-level debate among regional leaders of government and industry and a “…networking platform for both governments and the private sector to chart the future course of the ICT industry”. According to Dr Tarek Kamel, Minister of Communications and Information Technology of Egypt, “It is our obligation to pave the way for African citizens who are not yet online, investigate what the barriers are, work on overcoming them and make sure to maximize Africa’s share of the next billion users of the cyber world.” He added, “It is our obligation to encourage and attract further investments from Africa and from the rest of the world to make use of the growing market opportunities.”
ITU Telecom Africa 2008, fittingly, was dedicated to promoting ICTs as drivers of African development. As usual at ITU events, the ITU Forum conference programme and the ITU’s Youth Forum were the highlights of the event.
At the ITU Telecom Africa opening ceremony, Dr Ahmed Nazif, Egypt’s Prime Minister and former Minister of Communications and Information Technology – as well as a past Connect-World contributor – pointed to the impact of ICTs upon his country’s economy. “ICT went from competing for government resources to being a net contributor to the economy… In Egypt, we have seen the GDP grow by over seven per cent in recent years with double digit growth in ICT…” He also stated that the ICT sector is capable of delivering a competitive edge, “but it can only be achieved with the right infrastructure and a qualified workforce”.
Dr Nazif was right of course, especially when he said, “but it can only be achieved with the right infrastructure and a qualified workforce”.
The problems in Africa, as many speakers pointed out, call for two things in short supply – infrastructure and a qualified workforce.
Africa’s mobile sector has the world’s highest annual growth rate in mobile subscribers. More than 65 million new subscribers were added to the lists during 2007; there are now over a quarter of a billion mobile subscribers in Africa – about a third of the continent’s population. Mobile subscribers, although more evenly distributed than just a few years ago, are still highly concentrated in North African countries, in South Africa and scattered urban centres. Internet access, on the other hand, has been highly concentrated; more than half of the region’s Internet users are in North African countries and South Africa. Only one person in twenty, five per cent of the population, were online by the end of 2007. In Sub-Saharan Africa, penetration averages just three per cent. The shortage of international bandwidth drives the price for Internet connectivity to an average of US$ 50 per month – unaffordable in regions where per capita income hovers around US$70.
Despite the spotty coverage and limited Internet usage, the economic and practical impact of voice access has been staggering and the impact of such innovative uses for cell phones as mobile fund transfers for micro-payments in a region where credit cards and banking are out of the question for the average citizen, can be truly revolutionary.
Nevertheless, without better infrastructure of all types, the potential for ICTs to transform the economy is limited. A qualified workforce, in regions where even literacy is in short supply, is even harder to create. Assuming we can make the Internet available, just how much can an illiterate worker benefit? Since the vast majority of workers in the micro enterprises that dominate local economies are likely to be at least functionally illiterate, they will be forever cut off from much of the advantages that ICTs can bring. Unfortunately, once again this problem was largely ignored by the ITU (as it was at the WSIS) and the ICT sector. I have long felt that our use of ICTs to help the disadvantaged population of the world needs serious rethinking – systems that rely almost exclusively upon the written word are of little use to the largely illiterate people in developing regions that need all the help they can get. Yes, we need digital inclusion programmes for schools and communities, but why can’t we develop programmes to bring more of the benefits of ICTs to micro enterprises than just plain voice? If we are looking for economic impact, that is a great place to start.
The ITU Telecom Youth Forum is another great place to start. There were some 75 or 80 (much too active for me to count) young men and women from about 40 African countries in this six-day programme of discussions with government, industry and other leaders from around the world. The Youth Forum focuses, broadly speaking, upon the use of ICTs for regional development and provides an opportunity for these future leaders to, “… develop and deliver their… vision and action plan for their region, or the world”. These university students were selected based upon their essays proposing ways, “to facilitate the uptake and use of ICTs by young people for socio-economic development”, and their ideas regarding, “how ICTs can contribute to peace and stability within the African continent”. These very bright, enthusiastic and engaged young people are Africa’s greatest resource, but many with the same potential haven’t had, will never have, the same opportunity for an education or much of a chance to do more than survive.
The ITU Telecom Africa 2008 event brought together 191 Exhibitors from 37 countries, 308 Ministers, Regulators and Director Generals, and Company CEOs from 92 countries, 747 Forum and Youth Forum participants including speakers, within an overall total of 6706 participants.
The event showed a growing awareness of the power of ICTs to drive the continent forward. It was encouraging to see so many dedicated bright people – true leaders, from the continent and around the world – seeking ways to foster Africa’s development , ways to help Africa grow up to take its place in a world increasingly shaped by ICTs. On the other hand, statistics from international institutions and independent research groups point to a serious lack of progress on many fronts and a situation that is worsening for many.
There were many good proposals, by many good and dedicated people, outlining ways ICTs can be used to help the continent. Sadly, most of these ideas are just more of the same solutions we have seen over the years; they are undoubtedly good and useful, but – also undoubtedly – far from enough. The easy answers work, but do relatively little to help the small businesses that are the backbone of local economies in much of the continent. Compared to what ICTs can do, the easy answers do little. Better, admittedly more difficult, answers to the needs of these businesses exist and can be found if the ICT sector, universities, governments and international institutions join forces to discover what these small survival-oriented businesses truly need and then work together to provide it. We need hard answers to hard problems.
Our next Connect-World North America Issue will be published later this month. This edition of Connect-World will be widely distributed to our reader base and, as well, at shows where we are one of the main media sponsors such as: • ISCe International Satellite & Communications Conference, San Diego, USA, June 10–12, 2008 and • Nxt Com, Las Vegas, USA, June 17-19, 2008
The theme for this issue will be, 3G, 4 G or both? The race is on.
In a normal world 2.5G follows 2G and is followed by 3 or 3.x G and then 4G, Operators normally would follow a pre-defined evolutionary sequence, but the competition is so rough – and the economics so compelling – that many companies are considering jumping the track and switching technologies and generations. What might the consequences of this be in terms of the networks, equipment, applications, security and especially the market and the consumer?
North America 2008 Media Pack; Click here