by Reuben Dlamini
The arrival of the 21st century provided Africa with a golden opportunity to join the rest of the world through multi-technology network, but our deficiencies in telecommunications continues to hinder economic growth. The current projects: EASSy, SEACOM, Glo-1 Submarine cable are bringing hope to the bandwidth-starved continent. These projects are working on laying undersea fiber optic cable linking countries in Africa to the rest of the world especially with the World Cup 2010 around the corner. They are expected to boost the continent’s sparse and sluggish communications networks and link Africa’s regional groups. With SEACOM leading the way South Africa will be able to meet the bandwidth needs to successful host the soccer tournament. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) accessing high-capacity broadband is a key economic driver.
The benefits of achieving such a milestone are multi-dimensional: socio-economic development in terms of high capacity connectivity in Africa, reduction of unit costs, eradication of Africa’s dependence on satellites and expansion in Inter-Africa trade. This is a great opportunity for Africa to map out an effective system that utilizes information technology and communications (ICT) to develop and grow its economies. The ICT sector will also benefit from the ease of Internet access and will transform our education systems. ICT offers students, professionals, and practitioners an opportunity to access educational institutions around the globe through e-Learning. I am reminded of a statement by 85 year old Senegalese President Wade who declared “at a time when Europe closes its doors, eLearning is the answer for African students.”
As well, “information and communication technologies (ICTs) are widely recognized as key drivers of private sector investment, employment and social and economic development” (ITU). We need to rapidly and effectively leverage the benefits of ICT, as technology is still an area that needs a massive transformation in order to empower citizens with jobs and allow small medium enterprises (SME) to invest in mobile solutions to cope with the economic downturn in accessing various markets, save time and money.
In developed nations people are no longer grounded on their desks; they perform their work wherever they are. In South Africa the following technologies are already used by some SMEs: wireless broadband, Wi-Fi hotspots and cellular technologies such as GPRS, 3G and HSDPA. The adoption of such technologies allow some SMEs to cut down on space they are renting, work with fewer resources, and spend time with customers through emails, and websites. Thus, as we pursue sustainable growth, developing the telecommunications infrastructure will provide an unprecedented and unique opportunity to have access to the global markets and achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The increase in broadband greatly promotes economic development as communicating, accessing, and transforming information around the world is becoming increasingly crucial. The political will is key to accelerate the adoption and implementation of technology. The implementation of broadband enables services and products that were previously unaffordable to become accessible. It grants a greater access to inexpensive bandwidth needed for high-demand services and supporting African economic development and growth. There is a great need to pursue business-oriented projects and come up with policies grounded in reality and the involvement of the business sector instead of heavy reliance on Aid to Africa that is channeled to the government and NGO-driven development projects. The challenges that still face African countries despite decades of Aid funding demonstrate the need to approach development from different lenses: government and the private sector.
Taking a risk is a fact of business life thus we need entrepreneurial governments especially with the current global financial crisis and corporate meltdowns. The business savvy Africans will take advantage of the technological advancement to reposition themselves and pursue new business models. Governments in developed countries are rolling out broadband networks in their current economic stimulus packages and thus reaffirming the importance of building advanced telecommunication infrastructures. Governments have a task to mobilize resources and forge partnerships as they develop these infrastructures. Even more important is the need for governments to involve African citizens with the technical-know-how when drawing policies. The leaders at the World Summit on the Information Society realized the impact of implementing ICT to help achieve the UN Millennium Goals by 2015. We have witnessed a remarkable growth in mobile telecommunication in Africa and continue to gain momentum. Building on the mobile technology we can bridge the digital divide and provide affordable and sustainable connectivity to the people living in the rural and remote communities. As all communities become networked, government functions can be managed locally and the “knowledge divide” between those with and without access to information can be bridged.
Although, achieving such ends will not be a piece of cake, as it requires extensive efforts from the head of state office down to ministries; it is imperative that governments collaborate with both public and private sector in their effort to build technologically networked communities, as it is a catalyst for development and economic growth. Networked communities can share information and resources, mobile human beings, and access to services. Such advances in technology will give immediate access to information for marginalized groups like people with disabilities, women, and youth.
For such projects to be successful our governments will have to adopt prudent fiscal policies in investing in telecommunications infrastructure, and strive for proactive organizational policies in line with global best practice. Our governments should commit to sound corporate governance and utilize the technical-know-how at their disposal to drive entrepreneurial and business-oriented projects. They should appoint people with strong leadership and keen knowledge in the telecommunications landscape and local institutions, as we need people who can identify reliable technology that is easy to use and inexpensive. As we invest in telecommunication infrastructures we will also need robust regulatory authority for better rating as an investment destination and establish an access point in every community. Overall, it is without a doubt that these projects, implemented successfully, could prove to be the biggest step in bridging the digital divide that continues to affect Africa’s socio-economic, political, and cultural advancement. As Marshall McLuhan famously declared “the medium is the message”.