Africa and the Digital Divide

Stephen DeAngelis

October 29, 2007

I have occasionally written about efforts to connect African countries to the Internet (see, for example, Update on Wiring Rwanda to the World]. In that post, I cited an article that indicated the African continent had made little headway in connecting to the world via the World Wide Web. The Economist updates the situation in Africa and reports that little has changed [“The Digital Gap,” 20 October 2007 print edition].

“When it comes to computing power, the gap between Africa and the broadband world is still a Grand Canyon. Only 4% of Africans have access to the internet. They pay the most in the world, around $250-300 a month, for the slowest connection speeds. E-commerce barely exists. Nigeria’s 140m-odd people have but a few hundred decently trafficked websites in their domain. Blogging is a vibrant but peripheral activity. If sub-Saharan Africa were scaled according to its available internet connectivity, it would be about the size of Ireland.”

As I’ve discussed the Enterra Solutions® Development-in-a-Box™ framework, I’ve noted that there are some pre-conditions that help give it a better chance of succeeding. One of those pre-conditions is reasonable connectivity to the rest of the world. Development-in-a-Box is based on the belief that countries will develop faster and with a stronger economic base when they interact with the global economy. The fact that “e-commerce barely exists” throughout much of the African continent means that most countries there have a long ways to go. Development, of course, varies even among the largely disconnected group of African nations.

“Of its 48 countries, the 28 in central and eastern Africa are connected to the web by only the flimsiest of satellite technology. Apart from the occasional internet hook-up at a diamond mine or UN camp, whole regions of Congo and Sudan, sub-Saharan Africa’s two largest countries, have no connection at all. Even countries like Uganda, which are go-ahead about the internet, start from a very low base. Research by Microsoft found only one in 200 Ugandans regularly uses e-mail. The number is higher in west Africa, where the more robust SAT3 undersea cable provides for higher speeds and lower costs. The Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System, better known as EASSY, which runs 9,900km (6,152 miles) along the Indian Ocean floor from South Africa to Sudan, is meant to speed up connections in east and central Africa in the next few years but is not yet operating. African users must also cope with obsolete systems, irregular electricity and a stultifying lack of local content. Interfaces are being written in a number of African languages, but even the clearest instructions in Wolof or Yoruba as to how to use Windows presume a fair degree of literacy. Then there is the high graphical content of the rich world’s web: videos and social networking are unworkable in the snail-slow dial-up offered in most African internet cafés.”

The sad plight of these states underscores why pre-conditions are necessary to foster success. In addition to basic high-speed connectivity, countries require things like good governance (little corruption), an educated and healthy populace, a reliable source of electrical power, and basic transportation infrastructure. All of these are sorely lacking in many of Africa’s poorest countries. One of the things that governments have traditionally overseen is the construction of critical infrastructure (whether done by the government or by a group provided with monopolistic authority). The Economist reports that many African countries simply abandoned this traditional role, leaving the continent in the dark (both figuratively and literally). Because these countries didn’t use (or worse) abused their monopolistic powers, if they didn’t run infrastructure sectors, they ran them into the ground.

“All of this would be worse for Africans if state telecom monopolies had kept their grip. But fortunately they have been cast aside by leaner and more transparent mobile-phone companies, which the World Bank says may have poured $25 billion into Africa in the past ten years. The continent remains an enormous investment prospect, not least in internet offerings.”

There are a number of nation-states (like India) that are looking to form public/private partnerships in order to develop the infrastructure that the government can’t afford to build on its own. The benefit of such partnerships is that the private sector is less likely to allow the public sector to undermine infrastructure projects because of corruption. If there isn’t a bottom line (that is, a profit to be made), the private sector is not going to stay the course. As my colleague Tom Barnett is fond of saying, “Foreign direct investment is a coward.” It will always flee to safer areas where a return on investment is more certain. Public/private partnerships could help Africa, but not many have emerged.

“A UN call in 2005 for ‘digital solidarity’ has so far amounted to little. A big conference called Africa Connect, to be held in Rwanda later this month, is meant to give a boost. It says it will be ‘pure business’, not charity. African governments will face pressure, from the World Bank and the African Development Bank among others, to slash red tape and encourage technology firms in the hope of cutting the cost of going online by two-thirds and getting ministries, hospitals and schools onto the internet by 2012.”

Other projects, such as One Laptop Per Child, are poised to take advantage of connectivity once it is available. It’s not just health, education, and government that stand to benefit. Every sector will benefit once connectivity is available at an affordable rate. Business, however, will be the sector that benefits most. The Development-in-a-Box framework will then be able to help more fully both governments and businesses take advantage of opportunities afforded by the global economy.