By Paolo von Schirach
May 16, 2012
WASHINGTON – Africa’s economies are growing, but lack of basic infrastructure is still a huge impediment. To start with, most of Africa still lacks electricity, something that the rest of the world takes for granted. Most enterprises need to rely on back up generators, something that adds substantially to fixed costs, making African products far less competitive.
If you want to see the scope of this problem, take a look at any satellite photograph of Europe and Africa together at night. Europe’s cities are glittering with vivid lights. Most of sub-Saharan Africa is totally dark. No lights. This image alone reveals how much needs to be done. If you add to the mix insufficient road and rail connections and finally weak service delivery on the part of fragile governments you can appreciate that huge challenges remain on the road to development.
Mobile phones revolution
That said, other seemingly insurmountable problems have been dealt with, with amazing success. Africa has almost no telephone land lines. But instead of creating them, telecom companies successfully introduced and marketed mobile telephony. And this worked exceedingly well. Personal communication was fast recognized as a priority. Now almost everybody has a mobile phone in Africa, even very poor people. Getting a mobile phone connection in many countries takes only a few minutes, while prepaid time can purchased at any street corner.
Broadband Internet finally arriving
And it looks as if broadband internet connectivity is finally coming to Africa. The digital divide has hurt the Continent immensely, keeping it separated from the world wide flow of information. Reaching only 13.5% of the population, internet penetration in Africa is by far the lowest in the world, while costs are staggering, limiting subscribers to institutions and corporations that can afford steep prices.
It is obvious that non existent or super expensive internet connectivity has restricted economic opportunity, international commerce and education. Most people in the West, in Asia and Latin America take affordable web access for granted. But this is still a distant dream for more than 80% of the African population. Millions of Africans not only do not have internet, they do not even know that it exists and therefore ignore what kinds of benefits it may bring. They are cut off from the world and they have no idea what they are missing.
But this is changing, and rapidly, with noticeable impact. Take Mozambique, for instance. According to AllAfrica, The Vietnamese company Viettel has built 12,600 kilometers of fiber optic cable and 1,800 mobile stations. This way Mozambique’s telecom infrastructure has grown three times in just a few years. As a public service, the company connected free of charge 4,200 schools. The internet now gets into previously isolated rural areas.
On the West Coast of Africa, war devastated Liberia is getting its own brand new broadband connection starting in October. The project is run by ACE, a consortium of telecoms led by France Telecom. It will link Liberia to a fiber optic trunk originating in Europe and running along the coast of West Africa. As president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf recently announced: “When this becomes operational Liberians will have easy access to information in the world and this will enable them to easily disseminate information to the outside world. Those are the advantage of democracy“. The cable system will connect 23 countries such as Sierra Leone, Gambia, Guinea and Angola, where sluggish internet access makes life difficult for workers. “Our people complain every day about the difficulty to get internet connection. Some people have wait for more than an hour to access their e-mail inboxes,” said Sirleaf, hailing the new network as “good news for all of us“.
By the same token, the arrival of broadband internet in Kenya, via a system that links East Africa to the United Arab Emirates has given a boost to mobile services and to the growth of previously non existent Kenya based system developers, programmers and designers.
According to Wikipedia, there are many more projects that will bring more bandwidth to Africa, as a way to cut down costs for both operators and end users. There are at least three projects for an undersea backbone in the Indian Ocean. EASSy (East African Submarine cable System), sponsored by the World Bank and the Development Bank of South Africa is a cable system that will connect Mtuzini (South Africa) and Port Sudan (Sudan), with branches to several countries on the eastern coast of Africa. The Kenyan government has developed a similar project named TEAMS (The East Africa Marine System). A third project, SEACOM, is completely African-owned.
Access to rural communities
Getting fiber optic across Oceans to a “beach head” on the coast is only the beginning. Getting the internet to the end users who live mostly in rural areas with no telephone lines is another challenge. Of about 400.000 rural communities that are estimated to exist in Africa, less than 3% have phone lines connected to the rest of the world.
How big a change?
It is too early to tell what the actual economic impact of widely available and finally affordable broadband internet connectivity will be for Africa. But it has to be good overall. Africa has been held back mostly because of cultural isolation. The internet will not perform overnight miracles. But it will bring the world to millions of Africans. Internet access means rivers of new knowledge and new awareness of what others are doing in scores of different nations, not to mention an exponential increase of economic opportunities.