|Issue:||Africa and the Middle East 2005|
|Topic:||Building Africa’s highway|
Andile Ngcaba is Chairman of Dimension Data in South Africa. He joined the company leading a Black Economic Empowerment consortium that has a 25.01 per cent equity stake in the company. Before joining Dimension Data in South Africa, Mr Ngcaba served as the Director General of the South African Department of Communications (DOC) for eight and a half years. Mr Ngcaba has served on the Council of the University of South Africa and is currently an adviser to the Digital Inclusion Programme at Harvard University Law School. Mr Ngcaba is the founder of the Institute for Software and Satellite Applications and the Centre for Development of Information and Telecommunications Policy. He is an active member of many international communications organisations and commissions such as the International Telecommunications Union, Internet Corporation for the Assigned Names and Numbers, e-Africa Commission and G8-Dot Force Mr Ngcaba holds a Master of Commerce, majoring in Information Systems, from the University of Witwatersrand. He was awarded an honorary Doctorate in Commerce from the University of Fort Hare and has a diploma in Executive Management from a joint programme offered by Stanford and Singapore University.
Few of Africa’s 900 million people have access to telecommunications, although, according to the ITU “for most Africans, mobile is the only form of telephone communications they know and may ever know” and penetration is only 5.6 per cent. At Western penetration levels, Africa would have 810 million mobile subscribers. The growth of African telecommunications would bring economic and social growth, telemedicine, distance learning and cultural preservation. It would also provide astounding opportunities to companies that invest in the infrastructure for African growth.
The rapid change in telecommunications over the past decade has provided both immense opportunities and immense challenges for the African continent. Access to telecommunications is no longer considered an extravagance associated with major cities and the elite, but is recognised as a necessary part of the fabric of every continent, every country and every society that is committed to economic growth and development. The African telecommunications landscape is steadily becoming liberalised, with more and more African countries embracing regulatory reform and adopting market liberalisation as part of the journey to prosperity. The growth of telecommunications in Africa is vital for the growth of the continent as a whole, in a concerted effort to reduce poverty and provide sustainable development across the entire region. The challenges facing Africa cannot be solved solely by telecommunications. However, telecommunications can and should play an active and important role in the continent’s economic growth and development. In 1996, Edwin Parker wrote: “studies have consistently found that economic benefits of telecommunications investment stem from the increased productivity of businesses using telecommunications and the improved education, health and social services the telecommunications made possible. In all cases, telecommunications is a catalyst for or a complement of other development activities. Laying fibre optic across a desert will not make it green, but may well improve the economy of any oasis it reaches.” Africa today faces many challenges: job creation, health, education, culture and trade to name but a few. Nine years ago, at the 30th session of the ECA (Economic Commission for Africa), a conference to plan for “Building Africa’s Information Highway”, addressing the need for Africa to “harness information and communication technologies to accelerate Africa’s socio-economic development”, was presented to Ministers. Today, telecommunications is at the forefront of political and economic discussion both within Africa and in the rest of world. It is recognised by governments and private enterprises the world over as an important catalyst in achieving social and economic transformation. Africa is no longer the forgotten continent. The 2004 Economic Report on Africa Unlocking Africa’s Trade Potential states that in 2003, Africa was the second fastest growing region in the developing world, behind Eastern and Southern Asia. Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General has said: “Africa’s profitability is one of the best kept secrets in today’s world economy”. With a population nearing 900 million, Africa’s potential is enormous. Africa’s growing economy also provides international companies with opportunity for growth. However, it is a well-known fact that Africa remains the region with the least developed telecommunications infrastructure in the world today. With 14 per cent of the world’s population, Africa has only 2.1 per cent of all telephone lines and just 1.5 per cent (a little under 13.5 million) of the entire population is using the Internet. Most Africans live in rural areas, yet approximately 50 per cent of the available telephone lines are concentrated in the capital cities, where only 10 per cent of the population live. In short, most of the existing telecom infrastructure cannot reach the mass of nearly 900 million people living in Africa. A prerequisite for development, both social and economic, is greater access to more extensive communications networks, but more extensive communication networks are often expensive. A report from AISI (Africa’s Information Society Initiative) quotes the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) as saying it would cost US$6-8 billion for 4.5 million new lines in Africa. However, new technologies are steadily lowering the cost of expanding networks and owning or using the growing range of services. Mobile telecommunications has been significant in providing increased access to telecommunications in Africa where fixed lines are not only prohibitively costly, but also limited in number. As the ITU so succinctly put it: “for most Africans, mobile is the only form of telephone communications they know and may ever know”. Since 2000, Africa has increased its telecommunications users substantially. In fact, Africa has added more telecommunication users in the first half of this decade than in the whole of the previous century and currently has the highest level of mobile communications growth in the world. In 2001, Africa became the first region in the world where mobile subscriber numbers had overtaken those of fixed lines. Mobile telephony is now the predominant mode of telephony in almost every African country. ITU statistics put the number of mobile subscribers in Africa at the end of 2003 at 51,678,000. Whilst mobile telephony accounts for 70 per cent of the total voice telephony subscribers (fixed and mobile) in Africa, voice telephony subscribers represent just eight per cent of Africa’s population. Despite the spectacular growth rates in the mobile sector – 15.7 million in 2000 versus 51 million in 2003 penetration sits at just 5.6 per cent of the total African population. As previously noted, Internet usage is far smaller, with 1.5 per cent penetration. Contrast this with Western European countries that are currently enjoying nearly 90 per cent mobile penetration rates. If Africa was to reach such penetration levels, the market would sit at over 810 million mobile subscribers. By deduction, the enormous challenge of connecting Africa is also a great opportunity. In the past five years, the telecommunications sector in Africa has fundamentally changed. The explosion of the mobile industry, combined with liberalisation and the introduction of competition has substantially altered Africa’s telecoms investment climate. Similarly, the world’s attention to Africa’s challenges – health, education, jobs, trade – has woken local and international governments and the private sector to the realisation that Africa’s economic and social growth translates to economic growth beyond the borders of Africa. Telecommunications can assist with this growth. A telecommunications infrastructure, once built, is available to all sectors of the economy – government, manufacturing, education etc. The rate of return on telecommunications therefore, both from an economic and social standpoint “is expected to be much higher than the return on solely the telecommunications investment itself”. The role of telecommunications in stimulating efficiency and growth in other sectors of the economy is documented in studies done by the ITU and World Bank. The world’s media has carried many reports on the health challenges that are affecting Africa today. HIV/AIDS, highest rate of infant mortality, lowest levels of life expectancy and lowest ratio of doctors per capita are just some of the issues that are reported on a regular basis. Improving access to skilled medical diagnosis through telemedicine, so rural patients and health care workers can consult medical specialists in urban medical centres, can better the quality of rural health care; but first, telecommunications network services need to be available. Education is high on most African governments’ agenda. Africa has the world’s highest illiteracy rate, due to a lack of local public libraries and national libraries with few resources, a lack of schools and large numbers of students per class, a lack of educational materials and too few skilled teachers. Distance learning networks are a way to provide students with the best education available anywhere. By providing access to distance learning and the world’s best universities, providing remote access to national and international databases, libraries, research laboratories and computing facilities, pooling resources by building communications networks to link all educational establishments, the best possible education for all Africans becomes a possibility. The possibility can become a reality thanks to telecommunications. Africa’s rich cultural heritage – its monuments, manuscripts, artefacts, music and the like – is deteriorating. Throughout the continent and the world, there is little awareness of and little knowledge about the many different African cultures; there is also little access to national cultural sites. Telecommunications provides opportunities for the preservation of and education about Africa’s cultural diversity. Electronic preservation and documentation of manuscripts and artefacts, the creation of cultural CD-ROM products to increase accessibility to rare manuscripts and artefacts by researchers and the general public alike and making museums accessible to all parts of the continent as well as to the rest of the world, will help address some of the cultural challenges facing modern Africa. Africa faces many challenges in achieving social and economic transformation, yet with a visionary approach to the expansion of Africa’s telecommunications network, development across the continent can, and will, be accelerated. Access to telecommunications is critical to the development of all aspects of a country’s economy including government, banking, education, agriculture and manufacturing. Without a commitment from government and private enterprises to invest in developing a telecommunications infrastructure for the entire African continent, Africa will continue to lag behind the rest of the world, poverty will increase and economic development will stagnate. Africa’s enormous potential offers opportunity for the creation of local and international wealth. Helping to build African economies will ultimately offer international companies the opportunity for growth. With a robust telecommunications infrastructure, Africa and Africans can and will become wealth generators. Through government and private sector partnerships, the development of telecommunications in Africa will lead to economic and social development and to the transformation of the continent. Thus, telecommunications is vital for ensuring Africa’s full potential is realised. With commitment and a focused effort to truly bridge the digital divide, Africa will become an active and valuable participant in today’s global economy, with benefits and opportunities not only for Africa, but for 900 million Africans.