A South-South report

ICT Lessons from Africa

Von Frederick Noronha

It was once, rather condescendingly, called the 'dark continent'. Today, Africa hopes to harness the tools of modern information and communication technologies (ICTs) to spread knowledge and awareness among its population. An interview with Pierre Dandjinou of UNDP’s ICT for Development Programme.

Some are despondent about what role ICTs can play; others are upbeat. Dakar-based Pierre Dandjinou is the United Nations' Development Programme's ICTechology for Development Policy Advisor for Africa. Given his ring-side view of developments in the region, his is an interesting perspective. Dandjinou points optimistically to some of the initiatives underway, though others have also clearly failed. We shared notes hurriedly at airport lounges and mid-flight, headed north from Kuala Lumpur.

Says he: "Now we in Africa are in the third phase of implementing these technologies. More countries have realised how ICTs can be a tool for development. That came after achieving connectivity and secondly attempting to design policies for their countries in Africa. Now, over 20 countries have developed some sort of e-readyness. But many are yet to develop policy documents on the issue. Unfortunately, the situation in most countries is a reliance on external donor agencies, including the UNDP."

Dandjinou feels rather than waiting for donor agencies to offer support on this front, a more sustainable policy would be a home-grown one. "We at UNDP are trying to evolve local consultants and players. We are also keen for partnerships with civil society organisations," says he.

Then, there is also some reluctance to spend on ICT-based projects. Some countries see it as a costly trade-off. Should the money go for water or for ICTs? But then, does one necessarily have to be done at the cost of the other? One major challenge is setting in place a sufficiently efficient telephone infrastructure for the continent. "In most countries this has been neglected for 40 years. It has largely been a state monopoly and lacking in competition," says he.

Few African countries have set up a regulatory body. In most places, the telecom is a monopoly, with the central government itself playing regulator. Another difficulty is the 'cultural barriers' and illiteracy that block Africans from getting the most out of the Net and IT. For instance, the language of the Net is overwhelmingly English. Some countries in the region have 70% illiteracy rates. Among the literate too, a significant segment doesn't speak English, more so in Francophone Africa.

Connectivity: "I do not like Telecentres"

"Another challenge is the cost of connectivity itself. Out of 53 African countries, some 40 to 45 are in the list of least-developed countries. How does one develop technology when there's so much crude poverty?," points out Dandjinou. But some countries have done well. Senegal, the country of just under 10 million whose capital lies in the westernmost point of Africa, for instance, has some 9000 telecentres. All privately owned. These are not cybercafes. But their whole business model is based around the telephone.

Multipurpose telecentres have been set up in various countries, though as Dandjinou says, "I don't like them personally". These have come up in Mozambique, Uganda, Mali, and the like. But almost all are dependent on donor agencies like the UNESCO, ITU, Canadian development body IDRC, and sometimes the UNDP. Donor agencies plough in some $200,000 at the disposal of the communities, to establish communication centres, and also an information research centre. It was expected to promote telemedicine, and assist farmers.

"Most of them did not work, because they had no business model for them to operate once donor agency aid stopped," admits Dandjinou. But in some cases, while the funding lasted, they managed to attain some of their temporary goals. For instance, villagers got a chance to use modern ICT tools, be in touch with the outside world including expats from their country, and get some of the latest and even relevant information.

"It works. But only for two or three years, as long as the funding lasts. Today, the results are just not there," says Dandjinou.

Resources: "The diaspora is one of Africa’s assets"

Of course, Africa too has thrown up some interesting ICT-for-development projects, even if only few in number compared to regions like South Asia. Mali, the former French colony and land-locked state in West Africa and part of the great Mali Empire till the 15th century, is today a place from where a number of people out-migrate. "They've managed to build an interesting project. Some who went abroad kept in touch with their villages, and provided funding for setting up a cybercafe. They took on local youth to take printouts and deliver incoming mail", says Dandjinou.

"For Africa, the diaspora is one of its assets. It involves highly-educated people who live outside the continent, but who would like to contribute though they probably cannot find the proper channel to do so," says Dandjinou.

Some Ethiopians also launched telecommerce projects. This interesting project involves North America-based expats 'buying' sheep via the Net and their credit-cards. This is done without their local relatives having to make any payments.

"Discussion lists are still something largely missing in Africa. Even among IT professionals it's largely not there still," says Dandjinou, with a tinge of regret.

Community radio: "An enabler for participation and development"

In the field of community radio, however, Africa is surely ahead of regions like South Asia, which could learn from it. Experiments in community radio in Mali, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Senegal, Tanzania, and elsewhere in Africa have already drawn attention at the international level.

"Community radio (low-powered, citizen-run FM stations) are performing well in a few places, one of them being Niger. Using low-cost technology, they've been able to set up and run these. Information produced is local, proximity-information. It covers topics like agriculture, cattle-raising, water problems... things that really make a difference to people's lives," says Dandjinou.

UNDP has itself helped run seven community radio stations in Niger, the country with very limited resources in the heart of West Africa. "Now the communities are asking for more such stations to be set up. More are also being planned in Benin and Mauritania." Mali, a country of 15 million, has some 50 community radio stations.

In some parts of Africa too, governments - like in South Asia - are reluctant to open up radio.In countries like Ethiopia, Guinea or Ivory Coast, nothing much has happened because these countries did not promote community radio.

"But we had to insist that community radio is going to be an enabler for participation and development. We also told them that this can be a communication channel for the government itself. Lastly, we told politicians that this could be a good tool for being in permanent contact with the community that elects them," explains Dandjinou.

Dandjinou says there are plans for experimenting with WorldSpace radio, the satellite-based radio network set up by Ethiopian-American Noah Samara who believes that apt information can come to the rescue of the poor. WorldSpace, though expensive could have its benefits, if installed in community-listening centres where larger groups could tune in, he says.

"I know Noah Samara very well. But he needs support to sustain him. Looks like the world outside there is not helping him a lot, just like the Indian Simputer project to produce a low-cost computing device," says Dandjinou.

As Africa clutches around for solutions - just as South Asia, which faces parallel problems in development and giving its citizens a better life - this is a question which affects hundreds of millions. That's why it's so important.

*Extract from an article published by Frederick Noronha, Freelance Journalist in Goa, India, at www.bytesforall.org, reproduced with the kind permission of the Author. Contact: fred@bytesforall.org.