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Information and communication technology in Africa: The benefits of a connected continent
Written by Benjamin Saccaggi (1) Monday, 17 January 2011 08:04

The technological progress of the African continent is one of the most interesting current topics of discussion. The ICT sector continues to make valuable contributions to African communities. This CAI brief discusses specific cases of the information and communication technology (ICT) sector’s impact on Africa. It concludes that the increase in ICT is one of the driving forces behind Africa’s progress, and that access to such resources must remain a strong future focus.

Information and communication technology: The future

The United Nations’ Economic Commission for Africa defines information and communication technology broadly to include internet service provision, media and broadcasting capacities, and commercial information providers, among others.(2) ICT refers in general to any aspect of organisation, from technological advancements to policy frameworks around the implementation of these advancements. The developed world relies heavily on the advanced state of their ICT frameworks, which not only permit the functional operation of multi-national giant corporations, but connect the general populace to one of the most valuable resources in the world: information. Catherine Adeya states that information is the primary resource required for entrepreneurial enterprise, and that the general success of this enterprise will most likely increase proportionally to the information available.(3) Adeya further discusses the invaluable role that developed countries have played in the achievements of progressive ICT statistics in Africa. Funding agencies have made major efforts to contribute to the improvement of infrastructure and connectivity. This includes both the provision of funding and the relevant expertise to manage the new infrastructure, as well as educational programmes to ensure that the benefits reach a maximum number of people.(4)  

One such programme is actively implemented by the World Bank. Private investors and operators have invested around US$ 25 billion in ICT in Africa. The rapid expansion of ICT networks has led to an explosion in the number of businesses based on information and communication technology. It has also resulted in benefits for individual, private and commercial parties. For example, approximately 17% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa, or around 110 million people, had mobile phone subscriptions in 2006. This figure had increased from less than 1% in the 1990s.(5)

The World Bank aims to continue this positive trend and accelerate the participation of developing countries in the global economy, expand the benefits of technology through increasing competition and private investment in the sector, and foster sustainable economic and social development through innovative technologies with special emphasis on the poorest citizens. An implicit motivation of such programmes is to alleviate poverty and promote development. Access to information brought about by increased ICT capacity can assist in the development of sustainable livelihoods.(6)

ICT and healthcare

The ICT sector holds unlimited possibilities for the health sector. The difficult circumstances in rural areas have made it problematic to ensure access to ICT, but a number of programmes actively attempt to address such problems. SatelLife (7) uses inexpensive technology (a low earth orbit satellite) to provide information to about 4000 health professionals in 30 countries – both in Africa and Asia.(8) With funding from the Wold Bank, SatelLife also sponsors a regional centre in Kenya which trains health professionals in the use of information and communication technology.(9) SatelLife aims to improve access to accurate and relevant information. It hopes that this information will be used by the public to better their conditions of health. The professional health sector will be able to remain connected to advancements in health care from developed countries.(10) The organisation has been instrumental in increasing the availability of health information and in the upkeep of medical practitioners in Africa through the advancement of medical technology in the developed world.(11)

The IFC

The International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank aims to increase sustainable economic growth in developing counties. The IFC finances private-sector investment, mobilises capital in international markets and provides advisory services to businesses and governments. It focuses on assisting companies and institutions in developing markets to create jobs, generate healthy tax revenue, improve corporate governance and contribute to local communities. Their ultimate goal is ‘to improve lives, especially for the people who most need the benefits of growth.’(12) Two recent projects show the impact of the improvements in information and communication technology in Africa.

Monthly internet access along the east coast of Africa typically costs US$ 200 – 300, some of the highest prices in the world. This has a negative impact on the economy. Some estimates suggest that reducing the price by 10% would benefit the average internet consumer community in the region of more than US$ 2.5 billion. In August 2001, the IFC approved an investment of up to US$ 32.7 million in the Eastern African Submarine Cable System. This project will be a landmark fibre-optic cable project that will connect 21 African countries to each other and the rest of the world with high-quality Internet and international communications services. The cable will increase the capacity of the ICT sector in east Africa by improving access for around 250 million Africans as well as substantially reducing costs.(13) The IFC predicts that prices for connectivity will drop by two thirds, and that the number of subscribers will triple. As a result of this, the IFC expects prices to decrease even further as volume, demand and competition increase. The IFC is financing the expansion of this system further inland to ensure that not only the coastal connections will benefit from this advancement. Opportunities for business, education, and personal communication both within Africa and also to the rest of the world will increase exponentially with the increase in such infrastructural technologies.(14)

The IFC also assists the Village Phone Programme, which is an innovative initiative aiming to extend communication technology to rural areas and to promote entrepreneurship and employment. The programme connects major telecom providers with rural entrepreneurs who set up phones and sell airtime in rural villages. It allows consumers in these areas to gain communication access which they would otherwise not have had. In addition, local entrepreneurs are able to earn a sustainable income by charging minimal amounts for airtime and the use of the phones. The telecommunication companies also benefit as they expand their markets into new regions, paving the way for future development.(15) The project seeks to emulate the success of the Village Phone in Bangladesh,(16) and the IFC collaborates with the Grameen Foundation to apply this concept to other developing nations. The Village Phone project has already been implemented in Uganda, and plans to replicate the project in several African countries, beginning with Nigeria, are well underway. The project not only connects individuals for greater access to communication networks, but also brings increased access to sectors such as commerce, health and education.(17)

Challenges

Although there has been a great deal of achievement in the ICT sector in Africa, a number of hurdles must be understood and addressed before the African content can gain comparable ITC functionality. General access to ICT resources remains low.(18) Although a lot of progress has been made in the provision of infrastructure for and mechanisms of access, ICT access is still expensive. This effectively excludes the vast majority of those who would most benefit from it. More advanced services such as broadband internet are also limited and expensive. Active strategies for improving the infrastructural requirements of such services must be devised and implemented. Market competition must also be stimulated in order to promote local economics and lower access costs.(19)

A further barrier to the advancement of ICTs in Africa is the double difficulty of literacy and language. With most of the internet written in English, local intermediaries are needed to assist in reading and translation. In addition to increased programmes for education, the local interpretation of the internet seems the most immediate solution to ensure that people are able to access valuable and relevant information.(20) The employment and organisation of individuals who are able to access global knowledge repositories and transfer this information locally to those who most need it in a language they can understand can be seen as a hindrance to the general accessibility of information the ICT sector seeks to provide. It should, however, be seen in a positive light, as it represents countless jobs, industry opportunities and business sectors which could blossom from setting up and administering such tasks.

Conclusion

With international bodies and local players collaborating, the incorporation of Africa into the global system of interconnectedness could be one of the greatest strides towards development yet. It must be remembered that Africa represents a unique context for the introduction of these technologies. As such we must refrain from instituting wholesale strategies and notions used in the developed world. The implementation of information and communication technology in Africa must take into account the economic, political, environmental and other contexts in order to be truly beneficial.(21) The promotion of local business and access to as wide a range of individuals as possible must remain the focus point of ICT implementation strategies in Africa.

NOTES:

(1) Contact Benjamin Saccaggi through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Optimistic Africa Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ). 
(2) United Nations. Economic Commission for Africa. 1999, ‘An overview of ICT trends and policy in Africa’, http://www.uneca.org.
(3) Adeya, C. N. 2001. Information and Communication Technologies in Africa: A Review and Selective Annotated Bibliography 1990-2000. Oxford: INASP
(4) Ibid.
(5) International Finance Corporation, Annual Report, http://www.ifc.org.
(6) Ibid.
(7) SatelLife, the Centre for Health Information and Technology. Originally created in 1987, SatelLife is now part of the Academy for Education Development – a leader in international development. It was instrumental in such advancements as the first email in Africa and the first online health-focussed discussion list. SatelLife uses innovations in the technology sector to improve conditions of health in the developing world. For more information, visit http://www.healthnet.org.
(8) Groves, T. 1996. “SatelLife: Getting relevant information to the developing world.” in British Medical Journal: Online, 313:1606.
(9) Edejer, T. T. 2000. “Disseminating health information in developing countries: the role of the internet.” in British Medical Journal: online, 321:797.
(10) Ibid.
(11) Groves, T. 1996. “SatelLife: Getting relevant information to the developing world.” in British Medical Journal: Online, 313:1606.
(12) For more information on the International Financial Corporation, visit http://www.ifc.org.
(13) International Finance Corporation, World Bank Group, 2010, East Africa Submarine Cable System, http://www.ifc.org.
(14) Ibid.
(15) International Finance Corporation, World Bank Group, 2010, ‘Africa Regional: Village Phone’, http://www.ifc.org.
(16) For more information on the original project which began in Bangladesh in 1996 see http://www.grameenphone.com.
(17) International Finance Corporation, World Bank Group, 2010, ‘Africa Regional: Village Phone’, http://www.ifc.org.
(18) Lown, B., Bukachi, F., Xavier, R. 1998. “Health information in the developing world.” in Lancet 352: 34 – 38.
(19) International Finance Corporation, World Bank Group, 2010, ‘Information & Communications Technology in Africa’, http://web.worldbank.org.
(20) Edejer, T. T. 2000. “Disseminating health information in developing countries: the role of the internet.” in British Medical Journal: online, 321:797.
(21) Ibid.

 

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