Africa Goes Online
by Daniel Akst and Mike Jensen
©2001 Carnegie Corporation of New York (www.carnegie.org). All rights are reserved to Carnegie Corporation of New York and/or the copyright holders (licensors). Reprinted with permission.
Can the Internet ease the information famine in Africa? Many people on the continent are already proving it can do that, and more.
A remarkable characteristic of mass starvation is how rare it is in free countries. As the Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen points out, “no substantial famine has ever occurred in a democratic and independent country, no matter how poor.”
Unfortunately, Africa today is in the grip of a famine, although it only sometimes involves not having enough to eat. The continent is afflicted instead by an information famine, one with consequences not so very different from a severe shortage of food. Growth is stunted. People die. The future dims. And just as in the case of a food shortage, the lack of democratic and responsive governments is a major reason.
The irony is that while a great deal of attention has been paid to the supposed digital divide within developed countries such as the U.S., where computers are more often than not readily available to schoolchildren, the digital divide that is equally, if not more critically important, is the one between information-age societies like ours and underdeveloped places like sub-Saharan Africa.
Americans without e-mail, after all, can pick up the phone or send a fax, an option rarely available to most Africans for whom even conventional postal service can be an adventure (one former development worker tells of receiving a letter in Ethiopia postmarked nine years earlier in Nigeria). Americans have such a wealth of informational resource—books, periodicals and hundreds of television stations—that they sometimes seek shelter from the punishing hail of media that falls here. Africans enjoy no such luxury—which is precisely why the Internet is so important to Africa.
Outside relatively advanced South Africa, there are only a handful of African Internet users so far. But the potential of the Internet in Africa is staggering. Using the ‘net, after all, impoverished Third World peoples can engage with the intellectual capital of the West. A virtual university, for instance, could at little cost bring many of the benefits of Stanford to Senegal. More informally, the ‘net can make available a world of information and expertise to remote, information-starved communities at very little expense. The Internet also allows educated residents of underdeveloped countries to leverage their training and skills in the global marketplace, something already happening in India and even, here and there, in Africa. Many Africans speak English or French, and shared communications devices are old hat on a continent where hardly anyone has a telephone.
In fact, large-scale sharing of information resources is a dominant feature of the African media landscape. A given copy of any newspaper might be read by more than ten people, there are usually perhaps three users per dial-up Internet account, and it is not uncommon to find most of a small village crowded around the only TV set, often powered by a car battery or small generator. Why not shared public Internet terminals?
If the ‘net in the industrialized West is a place for entertainment, trading antiques or following your stock portfolio as if it were your favorite sports team, in sub-Saharan Africa the Internet can actually help break the deadly information famine that besets the continent. Surprisingly, if you look closely enough you can begin to see that just such a thing is already happening.
In Morocco, a local Internet service provider has landed the contract to digitize the entire National Library of France’s paper archives. Scanned pages are beamed by satellite from Paris to the data center in Rabat where they are processed by a large team of low-cost keypunchers and then sent back.
In Senegal more than 10,000 small businesses across the country emerged to provide public telephone services after the national telecom operator opened up the public telephone market. Now many of them provide Internet access and other PC-based business services. And in the capital city, Dakar, medical students are being taught by a team of doctors in Brussels using video link-ups.
On 24 university campuses across Africa, students are linked to classrooms and libraries world-wide via satellite as part of the African Virtual University (AVU) project, based in Nairobi, Kenya. Many of these students will soon be able to obtain degrees in this way in computer science, computer engineering and electrical engineering. More than 12,000 students have completed semester-long courses in engineering and in the sciences and more than 2,500 professionals have attended management seminars on topics such as Strategy and Innovation, Entrepreneurship, Global Competencies and E-commerce. The Internet plays an important role at AVU, which gives students access to an online digital library with over 1,000 full-text journals. Over 10,000 free e-mail accounts have been opened and can be accessed through the AVU web site (www.avu.org). Students must pay for the courses, but classrooms are packed anyway.
In Togo, an Internet-based call center has been set up to provide globally competitive telephone support services for companies with customers in North America and Europe who simply dial a local number in their own country, which routes the call via the ‘net to the support desk in Africa.
Craftmakers around Africa are selling their wares all over the world via the Internet through such nonprofit groups as PeoplLink, which sends digital cameras into the bush so that pictures of the crafts can be e-mailed back to the web site. (www.peoplink.org)
The National Museum of Namibia plans to make information about the fifth largest insect collection in Africa available worldwide via the Internet, thanks to the efforts of some industrious Namibian secondary school students. Despite their lack of computer experience, the students managed to digitize 20,897 insect inventory records in just over 12 hours. Further student marath-ons are planned to digitize the entire collection. (www.natmus.cul.na)
At least 11 African nations have initiated national school-networking programs and most countries on the continent are seeing more and more of their schools connected to the Internet, demonstrating increasing interest from governments, schools and the private sector. A continent-wide organization called SchoolNet Africa has also been set up to enhance teaching and learning by spreading basic information technology skills, as well as by fostering the development of information resources and projects linking students, teachers and administrators across Africa and beyond. (www. schoolnetafrica.org).
These are, of course, the exceptions. Africa’s poverty and telecommunications problems mean that it will be a long time before it becomes a continent of Internet addicts. Sub-Saharan Africa has by far the least developed infrastructure in the world. Although encouraging trends have emerged in the last few years, the differences between development levels in Africa and the rest of the world are especially wide in the area of information and communications technologies. Only 2.5 percent of the world’s televisions are on the continent (which has 13 percent of the world’s population). Computer penetration is less than 3 per 1,000 people.
Africa’s phone systems are spotty and often rely on antiquated equipment, and progress is hamstrung by bureaucracy, outdated administrative structures and, in most instances, state-owned monopolies.
All these problems can be seen as part of the generally abysmal state of networks of every kind on the continent. Africa’s electrical grid, for example, is grossly inadequate, resulting in irregular or nonexistent electricity supplies. In many countries the power distribution network does not reach significantly into rural areas, and “power sharing” (regularly scheduled outages lasting for many hours) is a regular occurrence, even in some capital cities.
The poor state of the transport networks in Africa follows the same pattern, and this results in additional barriers to the movement of people and goods. These barriers make the need for Internet access all the more pressing, at the same time they make it all the more difficult for e-commerce and other Internet-age developments to blossom.
But poverty probably isn’t the main impediment to Internet use. “African governments are the big barrier to progress in this area as in most areas,” says Nancy Hafkin, who as a United Nations aid worker in the early 1990s helped bring something called FidoNet to Africa. (FidoNet is a simple way of getting computer bulletin boards to talk to one another and was in common use before the Internet became ubiquitous.)
There is general agreement among those with long experience trying to bring information technology to Africa that the difficulty is highly regulated telecommunications services, usually appearing in the form of a moribund state-owned monopoly that is expensive and wary of change—especially of change embodied by a medium as potentially subversive as the Internet. African governments have the power to alter these circumstances, and gradually, some are doing so.
The signs of progress are unmistakable. Four years ago only 11 African countries had any Internet access at all. Now all 54 of them have permanent connections, and although some 20 countries have only one Internet service provider, hundreds of ISPs are open for business elsewhere on the continent, many of them in fierce competition with one another.
There is also a rapidly growing interest in various forms of public Internet access, such as adding PCs to community “phone shops,” schools, police stations and clinics, which can spread the cost of equipment and access among a larger number of users. “Cyber cafes are popping up in all the capital cities of Africa,” reports Bob Hawkins, a World Bank official working to bring Internet education to African schools. Many phone shops are now adding Internet access to their services, even in remote towns where the nearest dial-up access point can only be reached by a long-distance telephone call.
A growing number of hotels and business centers also offer Internet access. Roaming dial-up access is now a reality for travelers to most African countries courtesy of SITA, the airline cooperative, which has by far the largest data network in Africa. SITA’s Equant unit, which was formed to service the non-airline market, maintains dial-up “points of presence” in about 40 African nations.
“I really didn’t find anyplace where I couldn’t find the Internet,” says John Perry Barlow, an American writer and thinker on computer connectivity who has repeatedly visited Africa. “Even Timbuktu.”
The result is that, all things considered, a surprising number of Africans are using the Internet. It is difficult to count actual users, but the number of Internet dial-up subscriber accounts is readily available, and it is striking—more than one million to date. Of these, North Africa is responsible for about 200,000 and South Africa for 650,000, leaving about 150,000 for the remaining 50 African countries. But each computer with an Internet or e-mail connection supports an average of three users, a recent study by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa has found. This implies a total African user base of around three million, two-thirds of them in South Africa. That works out to a ratio of one Internet user for every 750 people outside South Africa, compared to a world average of about one for every 35 people. (The ratio in North America and Europe is about one in three.)
Kenya in particular is setting the pace in sub-Saharan Africa. It recently established the first public Internet peering point exchange for ISPs in Africa outside of South Africa. A peering point is a neutral computer where ISPs can exchange traffic between their respective users without having to do so via their international links. That saves time and bandwidth.
Kenya also recently rolled out its first national Internet backbone connecting six cities with the use of digital switches, fiber-optic cable and satellite services. Access costs are expected to drop by up to 70 percent in the next two years or so. The results are already evident in terms of entrepreneurial Internet opportunities: The number of ISPs shot from 7 to 23 in the space of a few months and more than 50 ISP licenses have been issued by the national regulator. The cost of surfing the web dropped to a maximum of $3 an hour from $8 an hour (in a country where annual income averages just $250). There also has been an explosion of local “dot coms” created by young entrepreneurs. One example is Kelele.com, an “infotainment” site that concentrates on the Nairobi base of users.
Nigeria is also opening up its Internet market. The country’s telecom regulator has licensed 38 ISPs to sell services and about 12 are already active. With a fifth of the population in the sub-Saharan region, Nigeria has been one of the slumbering giants of the African Internet world; until mid-1998 it only had a few dial-up e-mail providers and a couple of full-service ISPs operating on very low bandwidth connections. (It’s no wonder, given that the annual cost of an international leased line was $130,000—and it was still slower than modern modem speeds.) The national telecom operator—Nitel—has now op- ened up Internet access in Lagos with a two megabit link to the United States and has set up additional points of presence in four other cities. The Nigerian government is being supported in this by the United Nations Development Program in a $1 million project to help Nitel establish the Internet backbone. This “Internet Initiative for Africa” also aims to strengthen Nitel’s telecommunication school to become a regional Internet training center.
In some ways, Internet use in Africa is not so different from Internet use elsewhere. It is disproportionately white, educated and affluent, and the ‘net is used by some people for the same panoply of ends as in the rest of the world. But in other ways African Internet use is very different. Barlow recalls African programmers undertaking “heroic” coding to get an ancient IBM XT to act as a server, and a computer center in Uganda that received e-mail for everyone in the village. Messages would simply be dumped to a printer and posted on the walls.
In truth, Internet use in Africa looks a little like its use in this country a decade ago in that it often involves a technically educated elite, takes place via slow and unreliable connections and leans heavily to e-mail, the worldwide killer app that requires relatively little in the way of bandwidth or expensive desktop equipment. Getting enough bandwidth to access the graphics-intensive World Wide Web remains a big problem in most African countries, where sky-high tariffs make international connections hugely expensive, and where growing numbers of users make the strain on existing connections worse. There are also almost no Internet links between neighboring countries, and for various reasons a growing number of African Internet servers are situated overseas. One result is that e-mail from one user to another in the same city often travels by way of the United States or Europe.
Some of the regional Internet backbones now being built across the continent will help address this problem. In particular, the African Connection project, developed by the African Telecommunications Union, aims to create the underlying infrastructure needed to support future Internet activities. Since building backbones takes time, the first project of the African Connection was a rally of sorts in which the South African Minister of Telecommunications drove from the northernmost tip of the continent in Tunisia to its most southerly point in his own country. Accompanied by a team of 40 journalists and support crew on a Hercules cargo plane and helicopter, the minister was met at the border and escorted through each of the 11 host countries by the local minister of telecommunications.
One of the best known and most important telecom projects on the
continent is Africa One (www.africa one.com), a private venture that aims to put a 32,000 kilometer optical fiber necklace around the entire continent by 2002. The $1.9 billion network will be built and maintained by Global Crossing, a leading broadband firm, and is planned to better connect African nations with one another as well as the rest of the world. Africa One contends that when the project is complete it will not only vastly expand telephone and Internet capacity on the continent, but will also eliminate $600 million a year in connection fees that Africans pay to complete international telephone calls—many of them between African nations.
Universities were initially at the vanguard of Internet developments in Africa and most of them provide e-mail services; however, by 2000, only about 25 African countries had universities with full Internet connectivity. Because of limited resources and the high cost of computer facilities and bandwidth, full Internet access at the universities where it exists is usually restricted to staff. Postgraduates are often able to obtain access, but the general student population usually cannot.
Carnegie Corporation of New York, among others, is working to change that, at least at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. The Corporation is providing $3.5 million for a variety of projects, many of them related to information technology, including staff training in using computers and the Internet; more computers for student access as well as for use in digitizing the university library’s card catalog; network security; and emergency power generators. “What we’re funding is university strengthening,” says Andrea Johnson, a Carnegie Corporation program officer who is working on the project.
The Carnegie Corporation effort is one of many Internet initiatives undertaken by nongovernmental organizations on the continent. These reflect increasing interest from the international community in assisting with Internet development in Africa. At last count there were roughly 100 such projects underway. (For a continuously updated list, visit www3.sn.apc.org/ africa/projects.htm.)
Since 1997, to cite an example, the World Bank has been sponsoring a global effort to train teachers in using the Internet, a project now in 261 African schools. The idea is that these teachers will in turn teach other African teachers, spreading the knowledge across educational systems and societies.
Regional collaboration within Africa is regarded by many as an important means of tackling the problem of inadequate Internet infrastructure. Action has been seen on a number of fronts in this area, starting with the Conference of African Ministers of Social and Economic Planning who requested the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa to set up a “High-Level Working Group” to chart Africa’s path onto the global information highway. Hosted by the Egyptian Cabinet’s Information and Decision Support Center in Cairo, an expert group developed a framework document entitled the African Information Society Initiative, which has since been endorsed by all the countries in Africa.
But perhaps the most telling sign of Africa’s Internet potential is the involvement of Cisco Systems Inc. The big network equipment company, whose devices help power the Internet all over the world, is helping Kenyan ISPs band together to establish and share “Internet exchange points,” so that e-mail and web page requests from one local ISP to another don’t have to go through Europe. Cisco is doing the same for “domain name servers,” the machines that translate a prose Internet address (such as www.carnegie.org) into the corresponding numbers for the requested web page. Establishing local exchange points and DNS servers will mean a radically faster web experience for users of African-based pages, which Cisco hopes will encourage their creation, particularly in local languages.
Cisco is doing the same thing in South Africa. To encourage progress, the company is donating or subsidizing equipment and expertise, presumably in hopes that a burgeoning African Internet scene will open up new markets for its products. “If we aren’t there to work with these governments today, we probably won’t be allowed to do it later,” says Jim Massa, Cisco’s director of strategic government alliances. “It’s an opportunity but also a responsibility.”
The Internet is also proving useful to the growing number of Africans living overseas—as well as family members who stay at home on the continent. In Togo, for instance, Dejean-Tchapo Oboté Pierre was worried about his pregnant wife, Julie, who had gone to Marseilles to give birth there among relatives. “Since I was so concerned about Julie,” he writes, “I had to be calling her every two days and that was quite expensive (US $3 per minute). One day, I read an article about Internet telephony in a computer magazine.”
Making telephone calls via the Internet isn’t very common in the United States because people are affluent and phone rates are low. But it’s a different story overseas. Pierre looked around on the Internet and discovered Net2Phone, an Internet phone service that boasts substantially lower rates for international calls. Pierre had the technological wherewithal to get this going. His only problem was, he didn’t have a credit card.
“I therefore sent an e-mail to my nephew in Washington, D.C., requesting him to pay something into my account,” explains Pierre. “This was done and from that day I have been able to call my wife twice a day for the paltry sum of ten cents per minute. I should mention that soon after the birth of Melissa, her mother let me hear her cries on the telephone. I was overjoyed,” Pierre adds, “to be so united with them.”
His sentiments have been echoed by individuals, companies and organizations all over the world who have integrated use of the Internet into the daily routine of modern-day life. Perhaps slowly, but surely steadily, Africans from every country on the continent are joining the online world community, a place where they are necessary and eagerly awaited partners.
PRINT | CLOSE