Role of ICT in African development, The

role of ICT in African development, The

Wright, Bianca

ICT and African development

Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have long been recognised as having a key role to play in emerging markets. But what are African countries doing to promote ICT for development and are the benefits being felt? Bianca Wright reports.

In investigating the possibilities of ICT for development, it is useful first to question the concept of development. Within this context, the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are a crucial starting point.

The eight MDGs focus on eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating HIV/Aids, malaria, and other diseases, ensuring environmental sustainability and developing a global partnership for development.

According to the ICT4Development Gateway and the UN ICT Task Force, ICTs can address each of these goals. The difficulty faced by Africa is one of access. In a global society increasingly driven by access to information, Africa lags behind because its population does not have access to the technologies that are facilitating information access and dissemination. Conversely, ICTs can address many of the development issues that Africa faces – if access is available.

The continent’s teledensity rate – the number of telephones per x number of people – remains low. Fixed-line teledensity in Africa stood at only 3% in mid-2005.

Of course, mobile technologies have a much higher penetration level and may be part of the answer to increasing Africa’s use of ICTs. But access is not enough. If you put a computer in a rural village in Africa and do not give the residents a means to power it, it is useless. If you put a computer in a village in Africa and do not educate the people on how to use it, it is useless. The issue is broader than access; it is about infrastructure, education and empowerment.

Despite these challenges there are a number of projects already running that address the issue of ICT for development.

Education is one of the core areas where ICT is having an impact in Africa. Uganda’s SchoolNet (www.schoolnet.sc.ug) project, for example, is harnessing the power of VSAT technology to bring the internet to schools which previously had no access.

And education is also high on the agenda in Botswana with the Educated and Informed Nation pillar which stipulates that by 2016 Botswana’s education system will have readied itself for the dynamic needs of the country and the world.

“Botswana will be abreast of other nations in terms of information technology and will have become a regional powerhouse in the field. Most people will be computer literate as the majority of schools and workplaces will be equipped with computers, enabling Botswana to become an informed nation in which a culture of transparency and accountability will flourish,” says Katlego Nkwe, managing director of Verizon Botswana.

Improving maternal health and reducing child mortality is also being addressed through ICT initiatives in Africa. In Ghana, for example, the Local Digital Health Content project aims to create and distribute local knowledge relevant to maternal and child health in a digital format to help the illiterate and semi-literate, according to ICT-4Development.

“Working with local communities in rural Ghana, this research project is testing ways to help the ‘push’ for local content by building community capacities to create and distribute local knowledge on mother and child health in a digital format.” The project is supported by the International Institute for Communication and Development (IICD)

Government has a prominent role in promoting ICT for development. In Botswana the draft Maitlamo policy seeks to implement the objectives of ICT excellence as espoused in the ‘Botswana Vision 2016 Pillar of an Informed and Educated Nation.

“This vision states in summary that Botswana will compete on an equal footing with the best ICT enabled nations. This policy promotes ubiquitous and universal access, PPPs, incubation of ICT business, employment creation and innovation through increased R&D capacity and, at the core of this, lies the e-government strategy,” says Nkwe.

In Nkwe’s opinion, implementing the Maitlamo policy will see e-government’s birth and widespread usage. “The current initiatives by our minister of communications, science & technology on the Eassy submarine project will position Botswana as a regional ICT hub. This will also be aided by collaboration with the Namibian Government.”

He believes that “we are experiencing an African Renaissance, and therefore we find ourselves on the verge of expansive development; and for this reason we have become the focal point of the world’s attention. Information technology is the vessel that will carry African economies into a new age of development.”

The process of making ICTs more accessible to the average Botswanan is being spurred on by further liberalisation of the telecommunications sector. This will impact the business sector and hopefully foster positive growth. “Batswana can take advantage of the opportunities presented by the further liberalisation of the communications industry. Subsidisation of rural projects should open up the path for capable Batswana,” Nkwe says.

He adds that this will allow businesses to position themselves to partner with international bidders. “These strategic equity partner opportunities will eventually allow for a sizeable stake in the privatised incumbent to be acquired. The emergence of VoIP will also create revenue streams for all licence holders who have been given the opportunity to operate in this space. It really is an exciting time to be operating in this market if one has focus and know-how.”

Tanzania is making strides in empowering its female citizens through ICT with its EWomen Networking portal of the country’s Development Gateway (www.tanzaniagateway.org), which highlights projects that empower women through ICT.

The Women 2000 and Beyond report, published by the UN Division for the Advancement of Women cited the example of a project in the Nakaseke region of Uganda which demonstrated how poor, largely illiterate women in rural Africa, in areas with limited connectivity, can benefit from new ICT. The report stated that rural women living near “the Nakaseke Telecentre indicated their need for information on marketing and prices for food crops and crafts”.

Funding and support were received from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and with this, the International Women’s Tribune Centre (IWTC) designed a CD-Rom of ICT-based learning materials on micro enterprise. The CD used local languages and was designed to be easily accessible to women with low literacy skills.

“Women visited the Telecentre and used the CD-Rom enthusiastically. Some are saving to acquire mobile telephones so that they have daily access to market prices and can make better marketing decisions,” the report stated. “The community of women has become more confident and is working together to devise solutions to reduce their poverty. They are also training women from other areas in the use of ICT.”

In Durban South Africa, the Grace project sees a group of 14 research teams working in 12 African countries focusing on Gender Research in Africa into ICTs for Empowerment. The work, according to the Association for Progressive Communication (APC), is supported by a research grant from the International Development Research Centre of Canada.

Though each team formulates its own research questions, the overarching research goal is to investigate how women in Africa use ICTs for empowerment. The project will reach its conclusion in April 2007.

Though there are a variety of individual projects aimed at using ICTs for development purposes, no single point of departure ties all these initiatives together. The Development Gateways for each country – hosted on the mother site, Development Gateway (www.developmentgateway.org) – forms a database of interesting and relevant research and projects on ICT for Development.

But there is a push for an integrated approach to ICT for Development from Nepad’s e-Africa Commission. The Commission has identified six main projects designed to harness the power of ICT for development. These include the Nepad e-schools initiative; the low-cost satellite access project for Nepad e-schools; the East African submarine cable project; the associated Nepad broadband access fibre-optic project for landlocked African countries; the Nepad capacity building project for e-learning in Africa (based on the Africa Virtual University); and the e-policies and e-strategies project.

The e-schools initiative, for example, aims to “impart ICT skills to young Africans in primary and secondary schools as well as harness ICT technology to improve, enrich and expand education in African countries.

“The aim is to equip all African primary and secondary schools with ICT apparatus such as computers, radio and television sets, phones and fax machines, communication equipment, scanners, digital cameras, copiers, etc, and to connect them to the internet.”

The project is being rolled out in phases, with specific countries invited to participate in the first phase. These are Algeria, Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mali, Mauritius, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda. According to the e-Africa Commission (www.eafricacommission.org), this initiative will involve 600,000 schools across the continent.

Further, the Nepad ICT infrastructure programme aims to connect all African countries to a broadband terrestrial fibreoptic network. “This network will also be connected through fibre-optic submarine cables to the rest of the world. A broadband network that links all 54 African countries will provide abundant bandwidth, easier connectivity and reduced costs. It will help to integrate the continent by facilitating trade, social, and cultural exchange between countries.”

Nepad, together with the UN, hopes to use ICTs as one aspect of its overall development strategy. Movements are afoot to leverage the power of ICT to address Africa’s pressing problems of poverty, illiteracy, hunger, economic depression, lack of access to education and health issues.

Much more still needs to be done if the UN’s MDGs are to be achieved by the deadline of 2015. ICTs can assist in reaching the targets set, but only if they are accessible, affordable and rolled out in a way that allows the local communities to take ownership of the project.

Copyright International Communications Nov 2006

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