West Africa: Minding the Information And Communication Gap

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


As world leaders call for the benefits of new technologies to be shared more evenly around the globe, the reality on the ground in West Africa is a stark reminder of just how much work remains to be done.

Gathered together at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis last week, international leaders such as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and African Union President Olusegun Obasanjo argued for a bridging of the so-called digital divide between regions rural and urban, rich and poor.

“There is a tremendous yearning, not for technology per se, but for what technology can make possible,” Annan said at the opening ceremony. “I urge you to respond to that thirst, and to take the tangible steps that will enable this Summit to be remembered as an event which advanced the causes of development, of dignity and of peace.”

Many argue that promoting mobile phones and the Internet – otherwise known as ICTs, or information and communication technologies – is essential to the achievement of Millennium Development Goals such as the elimination of extreme poverty and the improvement of health.

But in Niger, the world’s poorest country according to the UN’s Human Development Index, only two out of every 1000 people use the Internet.

“In Zinder, people aren’t used to the Internet yet,” said Ali Lamine, proud owner of the first Internet cafe to be set up in Niger’s second-largest town, located in the dusty desert stretches hit hard by this year’s food crisis.

“When I opened my cyber cafe, I spent three months advertising on local radio, inviting everyone to come and discover the world via the Internet. But it was a waste of time. Only a few NGO workers turned up to surf from time to time.”

“Look,” he said, waving at the half-empty shop. “Only five of the ten computers are in use. At this rate, I’ll have to shut down.”

Cash, according to Zinder resident Maimouna Hassan, was at the heart of the problem.

“I’d be more than happy to surf but the Internet costs so much in Zinder,” she said. While the hourly rate had come down in recent years, she said, it was still triple the cost of rates in the capital Niamey.

So Lamine is caught in a vicious circle: he cannot lower prices unless an increase in customers allows him to cover his high overhead costs.

But in a country with an adult literacy rate of under 15 percent and with more than half the population living on less than one dollar a day, the Internet’s heavy reliance on text and US $3/hour rates could be a tough sell.

And while telephones may not require a high level of literacy, coverage is rare outside major centres and expensive even within towns. Despite three new mobile phone companies, the majority of the vast land-locked country’s 10,000 villages remain outside network range.

So it is hardly surprising that only six out of 1,000 people in Niger, according to the UN Development Programme’s latest report, owned mobile phones in 2003, a fraction of the global average.

Recurring themes

But Niger’s technological challenges are not unique.

The digital divide is gaping across most of Africa where a population of nearly one billion accounts for less than 3 percent of the world’s Internet users. And the UN estimates the rate of Sub-Saharan Africans with a mobile at about a fifth of the global average.

In Guinea, for example, where a political and economic crisis has left the government hard-pressed to provide even basic services such as water and electricity, telecommunications are erratic at best, even in the capital.

“I sit here day after day, customers come, I try their numbers, but none of them will go through,” said Mamadou Diang Diallo who owns a small roadside shop, known as a telecentre, where people come to make phone calls in Conakry.

“Sitting in this cubicle of a phone centre is no longer worth it. I think I’ll switch to selling bread and butter here.”

At the same time, some enterprising individuals are taking advantage of the possibilities afforded by ICTs in a country where Internet use has grown nearly five-fold since 2000, according to Internet World Stats.

“We recognised this opportunity and seized upon it,” says 29 year-old Moustapha Naite, who has grown his Mouna Communications, an Internet cafe in Guinea’s capital, from two to 40 computers in a short time. “The Internet is like a drug – once you taste it, it becomes a part of you.”

Naite sees himself as more than a businessman, saying that he is building up the technological infrastructure in a country where the majority of people live on less than one dollar a day.

“This will help everyone plan for the future and alleviate poverty,” he says.

Innovative approach

In vast neighbouring Mali, the mobile phone market is growing but there is less than one land-line per thousand inhabitants in rural areas, according to the ministry of communication.

And the majority of Internet cafes are located in urban centres.

In order to help remedy this situation, Mali has embarked on a countrywide UNESCO-sponsored programme to launch 50 community multimedia centres that combine radio and ICTs to transmit information to those who may not have the means or the education to access it online.

Through call-in shows, operators can answer people’s questions by wading through the Web’s mass of content to provide information that is both relevant and translated into the local language.

The centres are also intended, over time, to become a store of knowledge on matters such as health and income generation at a fraction of the price of building up a traditional library.

“Today, with the many opportunities offered by ICTs, governments have to work to provide access to the largest possible number of people,” Mali’s President Amadou Toumani Toure said last week at a meeting of municipal leaders. “That’s how we will bridge the digital divide between rural and urban areas.”

Neutral technology?

But not all Malians are so enthusiastic about an impending flood of outside information and its potentially corrupting effects.

“We can’t control what goes on in cyber cafes,” said Oumou Toure Traore, a women’s rights activist in the capital Bamako. “The kids often end up going to porn sites.”

And there is also the question of priorities, even beyond such basics as clean water and a reliable food supply.

“The Internet is still a tool for the elite,” said Gregg Zachary, a US-based author who has written extensively on technology and development in Africa. “What’s needed for the masses in Africa is electricity, radio and cheaper cell phones.”

“Cheaper Net, broadband, you don’t hear much demand for that,” he said over the phone from Cameroon, adding that the recent summit in Tunis was unlikely to have much impact on the lives of ordinary Africans.

It remains to be seen which technologies, if any, will have a positive effect in West Africa.

Although Mali has in recent years climbed out of the cellar and into the middle of the regional and continental pack in terms of access to telecommunications, it remains mired fourth from the bottom in the UN’s Human Development Index.

Even so, the country’s communication minister, Gaoussou Drabo, is convinced that new technologies and the potential they offer for ’leapfrog’ development are the keys to a brighter future.

“We’ve missed out on all the revolutions but we can’t afford to miss out on this one if we ever want to take off.”

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

Source: UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (link opens in a new window)