|Issue:||Africa and the Middle East 1999|
|Topic:||A Place for Africa in the Information Society?|
|Author:||Karima Bounemra and Nancy J. Hafkin|
Up until ten years ago, telecommunications meant providing telephone lines, extending national networks, and ensuring a good quality of service. Since the early 90s, the demand has moved from these basic services to more sophisticated, value added services, available in a larger scale, at any time, more reliable, and easier to access. The telecommunication world joined the informatics world and the information society was born. The information revolution is the central feature of modern life. Regrettably the African region has been the least touched to date of all the regions of the world by this revolution. In assessing this situation and looking at the way ahead, the authors would like to raise some questions and suggest some answers to ways of finding a place for Africa in the Information Society.
Is Africa ready? Africa is ready. Its leaders and its ordinary citizens have urged their countries to take the necessary actions for Africa to be a part of the information revolution. However, the region remains severely hampered by physical and human resources infrastructure deficiencies. Africa has 10% of the worlds population, but only 0.4% of the worlds telephone lines, averaging one line per 200 inhabitants. The problem is worse in rural areas, and 4 countries have 80-95% of their lines in the capital cities! Estimates show 1.2 million Internet users in Africa, but 85% of these are in South Africa. In the rest of the region, the number of Internet subscribers is very small, averaging from 1000 and 5000 per country. Leaving South Africa aside, the ratio of subscribers to population is about 1/5000. The possibilities of extension are further constrained by the small number of computers in the region, – with an average computer density of one per one thousand. The cost of a computer (even with rapidly falling technology prices) is daunting in a region where seven countries have a per capita income of between $70 and $160/year, and another 25 fall between $200 and $500. Yet there is movement in Africa towards full participation in a global information society. Africa compared to other regions has the highest growth rate in telecommunications development (number of lines installed is growing at 10%/year). Mobile cellular telephony is increasing at an enormous rate: cellular telephone systems are now found in 43 countries, with a growth of between 2 to 7 million subscribers in the last 4 years. In the last 4 years, Internet connectivity has grown from 5 countries to 50, leaving only Eritrea, Republic of the Congo and Somalia without direct connectivity. Given the limitations of purchasing power, the extension of connectivity must be pursued on shared bases – including telecentres, community kiosks and other forms of public access compatible with African culture and society. The availability of network computers at low cost will help enormously in increasing the possibility of computer ownership. And some new wireless and satellite technologies offer opportunities for low cost extension of connectivity to previously unserved and underserved areas. Challenges to African telecommunications The advent of the global information revolution poses a number of specific challenges to the telecommunications sector in Africa in order for Africa to enter the information society. Some of these are: How can the telecommunication sector in Africa re- organise itself in order to be more flexible and ready to adapt to increasing demands, in harmony with the progress of the technology. In other words, how can it be more pro-active and imaginative? How can the African telecommunications policy environment be modernised in order to promote competition to monopoly, private sector involvement to public sector ownership, foreign direct investment to heavy reliance on local public financing, crucial for rapid growth in the sector? How can the telecommunication sector in Africa introduce and allow for competition in order to encourage lower costs to the consumer and tariff re-balancing, especially with regard to the ratio between international and national costs. How can the telecommunication sector in Africa contribute efficiently to sustainable economic and human development at the level of a country, of a region, of the continent? How can the telecommunication sector in Africa seize opportunities in regional co-operation to help solve issues such as interconnectivity, interoperability, cost reduction, exchange of expertise, for better routing of inter-African traffic and peering among local value added service providers? How can the telecommunication sector in Africa contribute to promote the information economy, in a world where the principal means of generating economic values are shifting from manufacturing to intellectual activity, where access to and mobilisation of information are becoming the central aspects of productivity and competitiveness? How can the telecommunication sector in Africa best adapt the technology to the continents reality so that it actually fits into the national planning process and becomes the right engine to address some of its main development problems, namely: · Reduction in poverty and social inequality, as well as a fairer distribution of wealth · Increased effectiveness of economic reforms · Improved access to education and health services, regardless of social origin and geographical location · Attracting foreign investment? · Improved governance The list of questions that need to be addressed is long. Obviously, no one really knows all the answers and there are no universal solutions, or recipes that would magically equally satisfy all the countries. Nevertheless, a lot of progress has been made and several interesting initiatives that have been or are being implemented and experienced deserve to be studied carefully as they may serve as practices to learn from. In addition, the process, in our view, must be a collaborative one, and several stakeholders share responsibility in trying to find the right solutions to this impressive agenda. Recognising that the key role remains with Governments, although we do not doubt that others should join, mainly: the civil society, the private sector, and the development institutions, be they bi-laterals or multi-lateral agencies. What has been done so far? The Economic Commission for Africa has been a leader in the field of promoting connectivity in Africa for more than a decade. Its activities began in the late 70s with the establishment of the Pan African Development Information System (PADIS), a regional system of development information exchange based on the International Development Research Centres Development Sciences Information System (DEVSIS) model. Although connectivity was vital to its success (envisaged by satellite), the technology of the time did not make it an affordable possibility. By the late 80s PADIS began a number of pilot projects in low cost networking as an outgrowth of its activities to promote development information systems in Africa. Notable among these was the Capacity Building for Electronic Communication in Africa (CABECA) which helped set up low cost communication nodes in 24 countries. By the mid nineties, its focus broadened to view connectivity as the base of African information infrastructure development, Africas entry ticket into the information age. As the world focuses on a new millennium, ECAs connectivity focus is on the global economy and society and the role that Africa can play in it. Emphasis on :Policy Although ECA began its connectivity activities by working to set up low cost electronic communication nodes, it soon realised that its comparative advantage was in the policy domain: raising the awareness of African policy and decision makers, and working with them to develop the policies, strategies and plans that would make connectivity, with its incumbent advantages, a reality for hundreds of millions of Africans. Policy Awareness and Promotion ECAs major breakthroughs with African policy makers on the issue of Africa and the Information Society first bore fruit in 1995. The Regional Symposium on Access to Telematics in Africa which ECA co-organised in Addis Ababa in April 1995 with UNESCO, the International Telecommunication Union, IDRC and Bellanet International, was a watershed event in publicising the African readiness to move ahead in the area of connectivity. Following the energy exuded from that meeting, one month later the ECA Conference of Ministers of Planning and Development passed a resolution entitled Towards an African Information Highway calling on the ECA Executive Secretary to draft an action plan that would start Africa on the path of information infrastructure development. A group of high level African experts worked for nearly a year to draft the plan which the following years Conference of Ministers adopted as the African Information Society Initiative (AISI). AISI is an action framework to build Africas information and communication infrastructure. Its basic aim was to set out a framework by which Africa could end its information and information technology gap and enter the information age. Implementation through Partnership From its adoption, the implementation of AISI has been through partnership. ECA joins with multilateral, bi-lateral, and non-governmental partners, as well as with representatives of the private sector, in implementing the AISI through the Partnership for Information and Communication Technologies in Africa (PICTA), an informal association which meets virtually (on the picta-cl electronic discussion list), as well as annually in full session. In addition to PICTA, ECA is a member of the Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP). PICTA and GKP together underline the point that Africa is not alone as it tries to tackle the challenges that lie ahead of it in becoming part of a global information society. Partners are bringing both good will and significant resources to assist Africa in this development area. Since the adoption of the AISI, one of ECAs major activities with its partners to promote connectivity was the organisation of the Global Connectivity for Africa Conference in Addis Ababa held from 2-4 June 1998. Co-sponsored by ECA, the World Bank and the International Telecommunication Union, the African Development Bank and the private sector, the Conference brought together some 300 participants among whom were ministers, senior policy and decision makers in communications to discuss with them the potential for extending connectivity in Africa through new developments in wireless and fibre optic technologies and to jointly agree on major activities to be implemented. Moving Forward In its work with African countries, ECAs message is clear: building connectivity is not an isolated activity. It is central to the achievement of development goals in all sectors. It must be a consideration in national development planning and not just an activity of concern to the Ministries of Telecommunications. Enabling policy and regulatory frameworks need to be integrated into national development goals, and connectivity projects should be harmonised with sector development programmes. ECA will be bringing this message to African planners and decision makers, 500 of whom are expected in Addis Ababa from 25-28 October 1999 for the first African Development Forum on the theme, The Challenge to Africa of Globalisation and the Information Age. Through the ADF, PICTA, GKP, the African Technical Advisory Committee to AISI- ECA is in a permanent consultation with stakeholders to move forward the agenda of finding Africas place in the information society. Although the last of the worlds regions to fully embrace the potential of information and communication technologies for development, Africa is indisputably on its way.