Africa’s Complex passage to Connectivity

CONNECT AFRICA 2007, KIGALI

Annita Kabbatende

Long before the African ICT revolution began, one of the biggest problems the continent’s major cities were facing was the high rate of rural-urban migration that had left these scions of national development looking rundown as shanty towns kept mushrooming at an alarming rate.

Despite the detrimental effects this has had on the development of rural areas, it was and still is an understandable trend that truly reflects human nature. From the beginning of time, people have always moved in search of a better life.

At the two-day long Connect Africa Summit held in Kigali, October 29 2007, delegates aimed to mobilize the human, financial and technical resources to close Information and Communication Technology (ICT) gaps throughout Africa.

During the conference, the ensemble of leaders from public, private and financial sectors debated the key success factors vital to advance ICT investment and boost growth in Africa, including the expansion of broadband infrastructures, “last mile” access and rural connectivity solutions, establishing a business-friendly policy and regulatory environment, developing an ICT-skilled workforce and relevant applications and services and striking the right balance between private and public investment.

The aims of the summit definitely had all the actionable buzzwords. However it is not easy to appreciate the enormity of the task ahead of the continent’s leaders in the coming eight years to meet the 2015 deadline for achieving the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) goal of connecting all villages, towns and cities of the world.

A look at this year’s statistics on the access to ICTs for Africa shows that, despite the fact that Africa has the fastest growing mobile phone industry, this growth has taken place mainly in urban areas and Africa is still way behind in every other facet of ICT, mobile phones inclusive. The number of broadband subscribers can barely be expressed using a percentage and the total price for 100 minutes of mobile phone use is approximately 77% of the Gross National Income per capita in Africa compared to the world average of 30% and 6.3% in Europe.

With regard to Rwanda, the numbers are shocking. As of July 2007, the International Telecommunications Union reported that only 3.4% of the population is mobile phone users and 0.7% is connected to the Internet. In spite of this, we need to compare these statistics to the statistics showing the number people with running water in their houses or connected to the electricity grid. The numbers are pretty much the same. This poses the question: how are the people in the rural areas going to use broadband infrastructure if they cannot turn on their computers?

If digital and physical connectivity is to reduce poverty, then partnerships between networks must be closely examined so that the resources needed to provide infrastructure services in small and medium sized cities, as well as rural areas are better shared, and the unit cost of delivering these services considerably reduced. Connecting networks such as post, water, power, telecommunication and other utilities in peripheral regions is very likely to trigger unexpected economic gains. As the dot.com crash illustrated, getting the technology right is only half the answer for Rwanda. New business models and financing mechanisms will have to be developed to sell equipment and services to consumers with medium to low incomes.

History has shown that development is driven not so much by government policy but by the private sector, which is usually spurred on by necessity. The Rwandan government has already put the policy in place in the form of its Vision 2020, which, while many times seems to be a vision only for our ICT sector, is actually all encompassing. If there is to be any hope to achieve these goals, private sector needs to move to seize the opportunities that emerge from this vision. As His Excellency Paul Kagame so aptly said, “The barriers that governments put in the path of entrepreneurs need urgently to be removed. Individuals and companies create wealth, not governments. That is not to say that the state should become invisible. But governments should see their roles as enablers of business, and not gatekeepers that control and hamper it.”

The statistics paint a pretty dire situation. However, our private sector needs to take a “glass half full” approach to it. For Rwanda to meet the 2015 deadline there will have to be a massive rollout of infrastructure and this presents the opportunity of a lifetime for local investors.

A look at the pledges made during the summit implies that the funds are plentiful to make significant progress in achieving the goals of WSIS. The GSM association is investing US$50 billion to blanket Africa with telecoms and Internet access over the next 5 years. The World Bank Group expects to double its commitment to ICT in Africa to US$2 billion by 2012, from its current investment program of US$1 billion over the past five years. The funds will be channeled through its three financing arms: the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, and the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency.

This financing is expected to promote private sector participation, while supporting public-private partnerships to address market gaps, with an emphasis on affordable high speed Internet.

In the last 10 years, the private sector has invested almost US$25 billion in Sub-Saharan Africa, representing about one third of all foreign direct investment in the region. In particular, mobile telephony is a remarkable success story in Africa. This is largely due to the opening up of the ICT markets throughout Africa. In addition, it is now predicted that four-fifths of new global market growth over the period 2007-2010 is expected to originate in emerging markets. Investors cannot afford to ignore developing countries and must look to develop business models tailored to meet the needs of emerging market consumers.

The time has come for Africa to catch up with the rest of the world, which may seem like an impossible task, as all the development efforts need to happen at once, as opposed to gradually, like the more developed nations of the world. The Connect Africa Summit attempted to act as a promoter and catalyst for ICT development in Africa by engaging government leaders, service providers and the international donor community to try and find the right balance between public and private investment.

There is no “one-size fits all” strategy to create digital opportunity and effectively use ICT as a tool for development. However, one durable solution to bring our rural areas into the ICT age is to encourage people to see themselves, and more importantly, the societies they come from, as masters of the modern world and not as victims.

How to open up and modernize rural areas is a long, hard and complex challenge. But surely one key is for technology to be seen by these societies and people as a helpful and necessary entity and for the private sector to realize the potential for financial gain in investing in these areas. Fortunately for us, that is one battle we have a chance of winning.

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