|Issue:||Africa and the Middle East I 2002|
|Topic:||Launching Africa into the Information Age|
|Organisation:||Development Bank of Southern Africa, South Africa|
Africa has the highest density of countries classified as least-developed countries or LDCs. Given the scope and magnitude of the continent’s development needs, building the continent’s information infrastructure is the key challenge. With the vast majority of the continent’s population living in rural areas, bridging the digital divide is an imperative.
Africa and the rest of the developing world account for less than 10 per cent of the world’s telecommunications industry, which is worth more than $500 billion. Eighty per cent of the world’s population has no access to reliable telecommunications, whilst eight industrialized countries have three-quarters of the world’s telephone lines. Africa, accounting for 12 per cent of the global population, has a mere 1.8 per cent of the world’s telephone lines. To realize the vision of the African Renaissance and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), bold and effective intervention will be required to fast-track development of this sector on a continental scale. At the core of the initiatives afoot is the realization that the sector requires radical restructuring in order to leapfrog the journey to high-connectivity and universal access. Amongst the priority areas that are being targeted is how to address the specific needs of LDCs through the identification of new technologies that will provide appropriate solutions to address universal access. These solutions include focusing on Internet roll-out and community telecommunication access points or telecentres. What remains crystal clear is that, for an ambitious project of this nature to succeed, it is vital that communities be involved in a process of consultation to ascertain the appropriateness of the new technologies to meet their developmental needs and priorities. We must remain vigilant against dumping. The low level of existing infrastructure presents us with the unique opportunity to demand the most modern technologies. Investment must be accompanied with the demand for local content, the transfer of skills, the development of small and medium enterprises and other aspects of counter-trade. Political and legislative support for the process is crucial. This will create conditions that are conducive to a positive and investor-friendly telecommunications environment, such as transparency and clarity in the decision-making processes. A key imperative is the separation of power, with the government determining the policy environment and an independent regulator setting the rules, ensuring a level playing field between a multiplicity of operators and being the watchdog of the rights of the consumer. A clear spin-off of this would be the encouragement of private-sector investment. Such an approach will also stimulate the development of the local communications industry and spur it on towards competitiveness in the global economy. A key imperative for liberalization must be the driving down of tariffs and the costs of access to the Internet. Whilst a clear case has already been made for political support for bridging Africa’s digital divide, and although the support and buy-in of government has been strong and robust, much progress still needs to be made in most LDC’s to enact legislation that will propel this process forward in quantum leaps. To adequately address this concern requires the creation of a pool of expertise that would accelerate the adaptation of telecommunications laws. Whilst bridging Africa’s divide is mainly driven by and focused on technology and infrastructure, there can be no doubt that its success relies wholly on the quality of human resources that the continent is able to leverage in this sector. What is required is for the continent to have a well-planned and co-ordinated programme for the development of African human resources in the telecommunications industry. This does not preclude, or assume, that international expertise is not relevant or required. On the contrary, international expertise is critical and vital to the success of the enterprise. However, developing a robust African human resource base in telecommunications is the only way of ensuring that the continent is able to participate actively in the global information society. By creating a strong human resource base, we can begin to work towards the vision of establishing continent-wide African Centres of Excellence. These centres can then assist in developing ways in which countries can cope with the demands of rapid changes in the telecommunications sector. Through continental networks and exchange, the full benefit of the knowledge economy can be transferred and shared across the length and breadth of Africa. International multi-lateral assistance must plug into Africa’s own strategic programmes. It is widely accepted that current levels of funding and investment are inadequate to meet Africa’s need for telecommunications development. Much needs to be done to empower Africans to access the opportunities in this sector. This can be achieved by developing mechanisms for the exchange of information and expertise on telecommunications funding and financing. This assumes particular importance and urgency in view of the rapid changes in the role of info-communications in trade, mergers, acquisitions and liberalization of the telecommunications sector in general. There is no blueprint in this respect. Liberalization, privatization and strategic equity partnerships are amongst the range of instruments that must be considered within a strategic national context. If our vision of digital connectivity is to be realized at all, it is essential that we not lose sight of the pressing challenges and harsh realities that confront ordinary people. This dictates that we prioritize projects such as tele-medicine, tele-health, tele-centres, tele-education, tele-agriculture and generally promoting universal access through terrestrial and satellite technology applications. In the area of health and access to health we are faced with perhaps the starkest image of all and perhaps the greatest challenge to African governments and the development community. With a number of diseases such as cholera, tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS reaching frightening proportions, there is growing pressure to find innovative ways of dealing with the associated challenges including sharing of information about dealing with these issues. Telemedicine is able to make available the expertise of well-resourced urban hospitals to clinics and secondary hospitals in rural areas. Increasingly, telecentres are becoming critical instruments for empowering communities through information. They can provide access to new opportunities and improve the quality of life that communities experience. This initiative, in a very real and fundamental way, is bringing individuals and communities from the periphery of the digital divide into the mainstream economy. These telecentres provide basic telephony, fax, printing, word-processing, Internet and e-mail facilities that can be used by low income communities. Tele-centres can also become a hub of other economic and social activities in informal settlements. The challenge of dealing with Africa’s high levels of illiteracy has long been viewed as a major stumbling block in reaching its full potential. Through the application of tele-education and distance learning much of the huge burden of physical infrastructure and its attendant maintenance burden can now be obviated. This opens up new opportunities for developing academic and technology training capacities, extending learner networks and broadening the base of educational resources available to communities. Food still remains the most basic human need. With agriculture still forming the heart of Africa’s industry and its primary resource, tele-agriculture can enable farmers, through the use of the Internet, to access information regarding issues such as drought management, dealing with pests and labour-efficient practices. These telecommunication interventions can result in a higher production per square metre and more cost- and time-effective farming practices. Research shows that through access to basic telecommunications, farmers can increase the selling price of produce by 30-40 per cent. Over the next five years, the largest investment in telecommunications in Africa will probably still be in terrestrial telecommunications infrastructure development with an emphasis on wireless and IP technologies. Crucial to attracting investment is the co-ordination of policy, regulation, frequency planning and regional projects that have an economy of scale. Conclusion As the African continent gets up to speed in the transition from the Industrial to the Information Age the challenges outlined above become even more critical. The gap between the haves and have nots continue to grow and is fuelled by quantum leaps of progress in technology applications, particularly in the telecommunications sector. Whilst offering tremendous opportunities, technological advancement, particularly in the telecommunications sector, may well deepen the inequality or uneven distribution of access to services, resources and opportunities in the information and communications arena. As we move forwards in bridging the digital divide we need to ensure that the majority of the continent’s people are not deprived of the benefits of the communications revolution because of the lack of affordable access to core information resources, and cutting-edge technology.