Posted - 02 Jan 2007 : 19:19:36
This article was published on print in Djembe Magazine, no. 19, January 1997.
Africa joins the rush on Internet
Africa's Internet-potential is greater than you think
By Momodou Camara
Nowadays, you can't avoid hearing about the Internet. In fact, The 'Net' is the fastest growing media of the nineties, making the world smaller and smaller every day - and without borders.
Over 40 million people across 168 countries are now wired up to the Internet - a collection of computers around the world linked to cables, like ordinary telephone lines allowing the transport of digested information.
You can be sitting in your apartment in Copenhagen, and with your computer you can seek information on another computer at the other end of the globe for nothing more than your local telephone rate.
The individual user needs a computer and modem, affordable telephone lines and reliable electricity. On a national level, the need for this kind of hi-tech infrastructure has seen the rich countries moving ahead. More than half of the connected computers in the world are in the United States, whereas less than 10 countries in Africa are directly connected to the Net.
So, what is Internet's relationship towards Africa?
Africa - to date the least connected continent - is particularly disadvantaged. By cutting the cost of long-distance communication, however, the information revolution is also opening up new possibilities. How well Africa and Africa's friends take advantage of these opportunities will depend on our collective capacity to learn about the material resources available to us.
The continuing growth of the Global Information Society, as it is being termed, will have profound implications for African countries. Some fear that it will only accelerate the marginalization of Africa, while the pace of growth accelerates even more, and the gap between those who are linked up and those who are not, grows larger. Africa's disadvantage is a function of its underdevelopment in general, and of the low density of telephone connections in particular. As South African Deputy President Thabo Mbeki remarked in 1995, there are more telephones in Manhattan than in all Sub-Saharan Africa.
These dangers should not be underestimated, but lamenting them will not stop the rushing train of information technology. And rapidly dropping costs offer the potential for leapfrogging some developmental obstacles - and for Africa's civil society, governments, and entrepreneurs to take advantage of new technologies. If the minimum infrastructure is put in place, that will present those on the global "periphery" and even in remote rural areas, with new opportunities for participation.
The slow rush
Until recently, South Africa was the only country with a direct link to the Internet. African telecom operators are following closely on the heels of their counterparts in Europe and North America, in the rush to set up Internet services.
However, things seems to change slowly. More and more countries are establishing connections to the worldwide electronic highway.
African states hoping to leapfrog into the new age of technology are lining up to join a $15 million US initiative to help connect them on the Internet.
In West Africa, the scramble for Internet access has spread from Sierra Leone, which is at the bottom of the world ranking of nations, in terms of development, to relatively prosperous Ivory coast, US officials and industry analysts say. Experts from US aid agency US AID, the national Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the US Navy, the State Department and the private sector have begun country-by-country configuration and installation of Internet services in some 20 selected states under the so-called Leland initiative.
The use of Internet in Africa is currently limited by the lack of local gateways or nodes located within African countries, and the prohibitive cost of dialing to nodes abroad. The US scheme will help ease the cost of installing local gateways in Africa, and that will cut communications costs for users.
"Basically it will involve equipment, training, personnel and subsidized satellite links for a three-year period to create a national gateway for the Ivory Coast," US embassy spokesman Thomas Hart said of the Ivorian scheme, which is a typical one.
US officials said the list of countries was fluid and could change where things did not work out. It now includes Benin, Burundi, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Big plans for the Gambia
In The Gambia, GamTel - the national telephone company has just established an Internet working group to map out a strategy for establishing a country-wide service in this tiny country. GamTel already operates a CompuServe facility using its X.25 network. With a modern fibre backbone serving major cities, GamTel plans to establish local high speed POPs to provide national coverage. It is also co-ordinating closely with information providers, to build local traffic when service becomes available. Similar moves are afoot in other countries.
In summer 1997, Operation Crossroads Africa Work-Travel-Study Programme will send a second team of volunteers to work with the Computer Literacy and Distance Learning Programme in Ghana, as well as a new telcom team to The Gambia to start a similar projekt.
As the Internet develops, Northern corporations are poised to win multi-million dollar telecommunications contracts. And countries like India are also set to experience growth in their emerging computer and software industries. Other selected Southern countries may benefit as Northern companies set up computer links to process anything from cheques to airline tickets.
There are numerous advantages and disadvantages related to the Internet which can be mentioned. Everyone from journalists to indigenous peoples can access a store of information - some reliable, some not so - in a short time. Most data about the developing world available on the Net, is likely to come predominantly from Northern and Western sources.
"The main danger that development and communication implies, to all of us in the South, is the loss of our cultural integrity, the loss of our national values and the loss of identity. The homogenisation of humanity that's going to happen through radio and the published media, is only going to be accentuated by this," says Ranil of Environment Liaison Centre International in Nairobi. Some initiatives explicitly aim to use the power of the Internet to change the balance of information and analysis.
Technology is here to stay
During the last Images of Africa festival, we placed some computers both in Århus and Copenhagen and also made some web pages giving festival participants the chance to surf on the Internet on Africa-related issues.
Many were surprised about how much information they could get on the countries of their interest.
Critics have questioned the rush for the Internet by governments with more pressing needs, such as water and health services for their people, for whom the telephone is a luxury.
The advent of cheaper and more available technologies allows for technological development to take place. Technology is here to stay and African underdevelopment is largely the result of her lack of scientific and technological knowhow. This emerging communication technology allows everyone to participate in the global market.
Certainly the Internet is designed for ease of use and there are thousands of educational advantages to be gained from using the Internet. One perennial problem for developing countries is the "brain drain"- not least of citizens who go overseas for training and stay there.
Hundreds of highly qualified Africans immigrate to Europe and the USA alone every year. If Internet access allowed them to stay in daily contact with the best authorities in their fields, wherever they may be, would they need to go abroad to do PhDs or other studies?
The development of the Net -and especially the web - as a massive archiving tool could mean that all information available in the North would be also immediately accessible in the South - if infrastructures are developed and costs brought down. John Mukela of the Center for Development Information in Lusaka, Zambia sees it as a question of job satisfaction:
"If the Internet does halt the brain drain it will do so precisely because people will feel adequately in touch. Many find the lack of exposure at home more debilitating than the low income - and many will prefer to work from their own communities if the possibility for international exposure exists."
The wide-scale use of computers will become a reality only when rural electrification programmes are successfully implemented in the African countries. There is enough sunlight to make this possible.
Momodou Camara can be visited on the web at: http://www.gambia.dk
Some of our readers are either still unfamilier with this medium or do not have access to the Internet.
As a service to you, we have made a collection of different Internet sites on Africa-related issues which can be found on the World Wide Web - just to give you an idea of the vast diversity of African issues you find on the World Wide Web (WWW).
Once you get hold of an online computer, make sure to look up this page:
Once you get out there, the link will reveal hundreds of other interesting web-sites.
The tools that are the most relevant for the ordinary user are e-mail, bulletin boards (or conferences), and the World Wide Web. Even if you have full access, it is your communications and information needs that determine which tools are most useful to you.
Receiving information by e-mail, as by a subscription to a mailing list, is like subscribing to a magazine or a newspaper. You will do it when the information is important enough for you to want to receive it regularly. Using the Web is like going to libraries, bookstores, or a mall filled with hundreds of libraries and bookstores. Your time spent doing it will depend on the information you need, how quickly you can find it, how much you like browsing - and how much you can afford your telephone bill to grow.
Other Internet articles in this issue:
Electronic thrust for Africa (DK)
Linking to Africa (Engl)
New roads for knowledge (DK)
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A clear concience fears no accusation - proverb from Sierra Leone