Dear GKD Members,

Pertinent to our current discussion is the following article, forwarded
from the Togo-L list, which delineates the problems as seen from an
African perspective.

Don Osborn


Africa Takes On the Digital Divide

Africa Recovery (New York)
October 23, 2003

By Gumisai Mutume
New York

New information technologies change the lives of those in reach

Across Africa, new information technologies are rapidly changing the
lives of a small but growing number of people. In rural Togo a farmer
gets real-time information on market prices in the capital, Lomé,
through a cellular phone. In Accra, Ghana, entrepreneurs who in the past
were not able to get a dial tone on their land-line telephones can now
connect immediately using Internet telephony, technology that allows
phone calls to be made through the Internet. And in Niger, the Bankilare
Community Information Centre downloads audio programmes from the African
Learning Channel and rebroadcasts them on local radio.

So far, these are some of the few, fortunate Africans. For most people
even making a telephone call is still a remote possibility in an era
when most of the world is now communicating almost instantly across
cities, regions and the globe using wireless and satellite technologies
to send high-speed electronic messages.

Africa has the fewest telephone lines, radios, television sets,
computers and Internet users of any part of the world. These tools, used
to package and transmit information and knowledge, are broadly referred
to as information and communications technologies (ICTs). The gap
between those with access to ICTs and those without is generally
referred to as the "digital divide." It is most extreme in Africa, where
in 2001, out of 800 million people, only 1 in 4 had a radio, 1 in 13 a
television set, 1 in 40 a telephone and 1 out of 130 a computer. The
divide widens in Africa's countryside, where a lack of roads, telephone
lines and electricity separates the rural majority from their urban

Bridging the digital divide

"The digital gap brings with it a danger of isolating certain peoples,
those in Africa in particular," says Senegalese President Abdoulaye

"It is paradoxical and ironic that the continent which invented writing
 . . [is] excluded from universal knowledge." In December, President
Wade will be popularizing his "digital solidarity" programme at the
World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) to be held in Geneva,
Switzerland. Under the programme, technologically advanced nations would
commit to assisting poorer ones. A country can express solidarity, for
example, by signing onto a digital charter committing itself to "a
specified, quantified action for the benefit of countries where the rate
[of Internet access] is lower than a given level," explains President
Wade. A digital solidarity fund should be set up to pay for ICT projects
in poor countries, he says, financed by "raising large amounts of money
collected painlessly because the contributions are so small." Levies of
one US cent could be charged on every international call or one dollar
on the purchase of each personal computer or software package.

African leaders looking for ways to bridge the digital divide between
their region and the rest of the world see the WSIS as an opportunity to
obtain international commitments to extend information and
communications technologies to the majority of their people. The summit
is expected to adopt a plan of action to close the gap between the
"haves" and "have nots" of information technology. At its summit in
July, the African Union passed a resolution stressing the "importance of
the information society on economic, socio-political and cultural
development and the strategic objectives of developing countries." The
second part of WSIS will be held from 16-18 November 2005, in Tunisia,
which first proposed holding the meeting to promote the use of ICTs to
overcome poverty and achieve the Millennium Development Goals agreed to
by world leaders in 2000.

Extending the arm of technology

Low bandwidth (the amount of data transmitted through a communications
line) and expensive call charges characterize most of Africa's
telecommunications facilities. An analysis of Internet use can give a
representative picture of the ICT situation in Africa, says Mr. Mike
Jensen, an independent ICT consultant based in South Africa, since
connecting to the Internet involves different individual ICT components
such as computers, telephones and satellites.

By mid 2002, 1.7 million Africans had dial-up Internet services, 1.2
million of them in South Africa and North Africa alone. Assuming that
three-to-five people use each Internet-connected computer, notes Mr.
Jensen, it is possible that 5-8 million Africans have access to the
Internet. In sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa), there are some
1.5-2.5 million users - one in every 250-400 people, compared to 1 in 15
people in the rest of the world. In North America and Europe, 1 in every
2 people has access to the Internet. Given that timely access to news
and information can promote trade, education, employment, health and
wealth, "too many of the world's people remain untouched by this
revolution," says UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. "The stakes are high

Africa has, however, made significant improvements in telecommunications
over the past few years. The number of land telephone lines increased
from 12.5 mn in 1995 to 21 mn in 2001, mostly, Mr. Jensen states, due to
a regional push to deregulate the sector. There has been a rapid
increase in the number of public phone booths and community
telecommunications centres or tele-centres, he says. In Senegal, "there
are over 10,000 commercially run public telephone bureaus, employing
15,000 people and generating over 30 per cent of the entire [telephone]
network's revenue."

Many African countries are increasingly leapfrogging old technologies
and avoiding the expense of laying land lines. As a result wireless
technologies and mobile phones are becoming the preferred means of
communication. In 2001 there were an estimated 24 mn mobile phones in
Africa compared to 21 mn fixed-line phones. With the number of users
doubling every year, "Africa is now the fastest growing cellular market
in the world," says Mr. Muriuki Mureithi, chief executive officer at
Summit Strategies, a Kenya-based telecommunications consultancy.

Information as a human right

One of the major issues to be discussed at the WSIS in December is the
right to communicate. Civil society groups in Africa say that as
countries rush to privatize infrastructure, they are forgetting people's
rights to communicate. While no universal definition of this right yet
exists, civil society groups say it entails guaranteeing everyone access
to affordable communications tools.

To achieve this, governments need to strike a balance between
strengthening public communications facilities, often the only means of
communication for poor and rural dwellers, and commercialization, notes
the African Civil Society Caucus, a group of African non-governmental
organizations participating in the WSIS. "The right to communicate is a
familiar one to African people and we assert that it is a fundamental
human right that should be seen as the platform on which a global
information society is built," notes the caucus. The group says that
most of the technology being developed is very expensive, putting even
basic communications beyond the reach of the poor. The caucus is also
calling on African governments to support the creation of
African-language computer programmes to enable the majority of Africans,
who do not speak English or French, to be able to participate.

To facilitate universal access, Africa needs to be innovative in its use
of tele-centres, says Mr. Adama Samassekou, Mali's former education
minister and now president of the Preparatory Committee of the WSIS.
Tele-centres allow many people to share ICT resources. "There is no need
for each to have his own computer," he says. The continent could also
learn from other developing regions that are producing cheap, affordable
computers to broaden access. "We have good initiatives taking place in
the South, like in India, the 'simputer' - simple computer - and Brazil
has its popular Computadora," Mr. Samassekou told Africa Recovery. The
simputer is a low-cost, hand-held device developed by Indian engineers
to take the Internet to the rural masses. And the Computadora is a
bare-bones machine without "frills" such as floppy disks, costing about
$300 and referred to by ICT experts as "a PC for the people, a

ICT for development

Much of the drive to expand ICT access stems from the belief that such
technologies are tools for development. While there are divergent views
over the nature and scope of the contribution they can make, there is
widespread acknowledgement that ICTs can extend services such as health
care to poor communities. In South Africa, a tele-medicine project at
Tygerberg Children's Hospital in Cape Town, launched in 1996, links its
medical experts to three hospitals in underprivileged districts. In
1994, the new government inherited a system which directed most public
health funds to urban, often whites-only hospitals. District hospitals
and clinics - responsible for primary care in towns and rural areas
populated by black people - were under-resourced. Today, most
specialists continue to work in urban areas. Patients requiring
specialized treatment must either travel for hundreds of kilometres or
be treated by practitioners with only general training and experience.

Experts at Tygerberg shorten the distance between them and their rural
patients by using a computer, printer, scanner and digital camera.

Through a dial-up connection the district hospital's doctors scan x-rays
and electro-cardiographs and e-mail them, together with blood test
results and digital photographs, to Tygerberg where a diagnosis is made
and relayed back to the district hospital.

In Zimbabwe, the Kubatana project, a website linking 230 civil and
community-based groups, provides information on new legislation, the
electoral system and voter registration procedures, as well as major
social issues confronting the country, such as HIV/AIDS. Owners of the
website describe their work as "electronic activism." Users say the
network is particularly useful given the current clampdown on the media
in Zimbabwe.

It reaches out to Zimbabweans who do not have computers at home or at
work through the growing number of public Internet facilities emerging
across the country. During major rights campaigns, members of the
network have asked those with computers to print campaign material and
hand it out or post it to those without access.

A "friendship tree" - a contact list of about 100 Zimbabweans - is
activated by owners of the site every time an activist is arrested to
ensure that witnesses are available to monitor the court proceedings.

"One of the most powerful things we can do in situations of chaos is to
become a witness," Ms. Bev Clark, one of the founders of Kubatana, notes
in a series of case studies on ICTs conducted by the International
Institute for Communication and Development, a non-profit foundation
based in the Netherlands.

Perhaps the most popular development use of ICTs in Africa is in

"Virtual" universities and other institutions are springing up to meet
the challenge of providing education to a growing number of students
with limited resources. Less well known are attempts to use ICTs to
rehabilitate child ex-combatants. Among its education promotion
activities in 30 African countries, SchoolNet Africa, an independent
organization based in South Africa, trains former child soldiers in
Angola, Liberia and Rwanda. By next year the programme will have reached
more than 100 children in the three countries, equipping them with
computer skills and providing psychological counselling.

In Sierra Leone, more than 200 young people affected by war have
participated in a project run by the non-governmental International
Education and Research Network. Their multi-media showcase on the
Internet includes essays, images and music "that tells of the human toll
of our civil war," says Mr. Andrew Greene, a volunteer trainer at the

He says the inaccessibility of the Internet in his country has been the
biggest challenge facing the project. "This exercise is painstaking as
we must hire a bus to get access to the Internet" in urban areas. When
they cannot hire a bus, the students walk and then often have to queue
up for hours waiting for computers at Internet cafes. The project has
touched the hearts of many people around the world, says Mr. Greene. He
adds, "the UN office of displaced persons is considering it as a
potential model for use in four additional parts of the world that have
been affected by war," Cambodia, Palestine, Sri Lanka and Uganda.

Seeking political mileage

In South Africa a group of academics recently launched an online
Northern Sotho-English dictionary - the first of its kind - to help
develop a language, one of South Africa's 11 official ones, that has
historically been neglected. In Uganda, an online counselling service
was launched in May to train teachers and students to counsel young
people in HIV prevention and care. But many local ICT initiatives such
as these are hindered by the lack of broader national strategies.

Over the last decade, African leaders have adopted declarations and
resolutions to speed the development of information technology on the
continent. In 1996, the Organization of African Unity adopted the Africa
Information Society Initiative as the guiding framework for ICT efforts
in Africa. Under the initiative, heads of state agreed that their
countries would develop national ICT policies and strategies. Many have
yet to do so.

Last year, at a regional African conference in Bamako, Mali, to prepare
for the WSIS, a declaration urged African countries to remove duties
levied on ICT hardware and software until the second phase of WSIS in
Tunis in 2005.

Many countries are yet to comply. Governments blame the lack of action
on a shortage of resources, especially financial.

African leaders continue to seek ways around this. The continent's new
development framework, the New Partnership for Africa's Development
(NEPAD) places ICTs among eight priority sectors. Under NEPAD, African
governments pledge to double the number of telephone lines in Africa by
2005, lower costs and improve reliability of communications services.

To implement the ICT goals of NEPAD, an e-Africa Commission has been set
up by continental leaders, chaired by Mr. Alpha Oumar Konaré, former
Malian president and current chairman of the Commission of the African

He is proposing a "debt for connectivity" programme whereby rich
countries agree to write-off at least 1 per cent of the total debt of
every African country each year and place it into a common ICT fund.
Last year, sub-Saharan Africa's total debt was $204 bn. "The burden that
Africa drags upon its feet, and that prevents it from taking off, is
debt, always debt," says Mr. Konaré.

Sometimes the problem is simply poor government planning, notes Mr. Fred
Kofi de Heer-Mensah of the Ghana Institute of Management and Public
Administration. He says that the continent's Internet development is
often hindered by measures taken by governments. A few years ago, the
previous Ghanaian government jailed the heads of a number of leading
Internet service providers. Although they were later exonerated, they
had been accused of breaking telephone regulations by allowing
subscribers to make phone calls over the Internet. Internet service
providers, often using high-speed satellite links, were able to provide
their clients with extremely cheap telephone call rates, even on
international calls, competing for revenue with regular phone companies.

"Internet telephony is changing the whole power structure," says Mr.
Francis Quartey, chief technology officer of Intercom Data Network and
one of those jailed. "The dangerous thing is that the power elite are
responding out of fear and ignorance."

It is also poor government strategy that results in expensive charges
for communication, says Mr. de Heer-Mensah. In many countries, computers
and cellular phones are defined as luxury items and are taxed heavily.
Many poorer African countries charge steep levies for Internet access,
while the relatively well-off ones, such as South Africa, provide cheap,
even free Internet access for academic institutions, he says. Cheap
access can stimulate the development of local content for the Internet
and in turn generate a local audience. In South Africa, dial-up rates
can be as low as $5 a month, affordable for most urban dwellers. In
other countries, the monthly rates can exceed $30. Surprisingly, he
says, "these are the countries with all sorts of control mechanisms."

To deal with its daunting challenges, Africa will need more candid and
vigorous dialogue between ordinary citizens and their leaders. According
to Mr. Joseph Okpaku, president of Telecom Africa Corporation, a US
company, Africa faces two choices: "We go on engaging in pat
conversations which, while preserving our image, allow our problems to
fester. Or we find the courage to address our critical problems."

This DOT-COM Discussion is funded by the dot-ORG USAID Cooperative
Agreement, and hosted by GKD. provides
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