wiring africa

wiring africa

San Francisco Examiner
A Section of the San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle
Sunday, January 4, 1998

Wiring Africa

By Brett Allan King
Special to the Examiner

BUBA. Guinea-Bissau — When the sun sets on thatch-roofed adobe huts and women kindle coal stoves to cook hand-ground meal, the idea of surfing the Net from this West African interior town seems almost preposterous.

“Internet? We can’t use Internet in Guinea-Bissau,” said Mariama Camara, a local English teacher, sitting on her back porch in the pitch darkness. “There’s no light … and the rate of illiteracy! Even some government ministers can’t read!”

Nonetheless, come digital hell or high water, Africa will soon be wired. While highways go unpaved, projects like the Leland Initiative, a joint project between the US State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, are building Africans an on-ramp to the Infobahn. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the private sector also envision a modem in every hut.

“The Internet is an opportunity. The African has to participate in what’s going on around the world,” said Abdulai Sila, president of SITEC, Guinea-Bissau’s first private Internet service provider.

But who will really benefit from access to the Internet? This former Portuguese colony is among the poorest countries on the world’s poorest continent: Half the population can’t read. 90 percent are farmers, and fewer than three people in 1,000 have telephones. The Leland Initiative — named after the late African American congressman, Rep George “Mickey” Leland of Texas, who was killed in a plane crash during a 1989 humanitarian mission to Ethiopia — aims to promote sustainable development in 20 African nations “by enhancing their ability to access. produce and use information as full and equal participants in the global community.” Already in its second year, the five-year, $15 million plan has had both ups and downs.

In some nations the program is well under way, as American technicians join African experts to install Internet-ready equipment. In others, U.S representatives and local telecommunications monopolies continue to wrangle over the opening of markets. USAID wants local telecommunications operations to drop barriers to competition in exchange for technology and technical support. “We don’t want any other commitment except that the governments will make it open, bring in competition, and make it accessible,” said Nancy McKay, acting
USAID representative in Bissau. “We’re just saying we’re giving you this thing for free. Pass it on.”

“Development takes place when people have information,” said McKay. “Information is power. And the governments of these countries try to keep information from people, to keep the power. This is the way to end-run the oligopolies in African countries.”

In Guinea-Bissau, entrepreneurs can start private Internet service providers, but may not challenge the state telecommunications monopoly, the fruit of a contract with Portuguese Telecom, effectively hamstringing the businesses from the start. This formula repeats itself across the continent.

With a 35-mile average distance between phones, “wiring” Africa will be, not surprisingly, a wireless affair. Intercity connections already rely on a combination of radio-communications, microwave radio relay and open wire lines. Western firms are working on satellite-based mobile communications systems. If all goes as planned, the first African satellite should be operational before 2001.

One major exception to the wireless trend, however, is AT&T Corp’s $1.3 billion Africa One plan to surround the entire continent with a fiber optic table at the sea floor.

Even once a telecommunications infrastructure is in place, accessibility for all is no guarantee. If only a few people have telephones, how will companies make their investment worthwhile? The banker in Bissau or the lawyer in Lagos may see immediate benefits in digital communications, but what about the illiterate, subsistence farmer in Gabu?

“The Internet must succeed in non-literate communities. Otherwise it will remain an elite thing,” said Tierno S. Bah, chairman and CEO of AfriQAccess Inc., in a recent UNDP-sponsored Internet conference. “The true test of success for the Internet is when it brings affordable, interactive multimedia and live audio-visual broadcasting to poor countries.”

For providers like SITEC, a user-friendly World Wide Web-type interface for the masses is important, but a luxury. More important is instant access to existing technology that allows the able few to become not just consumers, but producers, of information.

“We’re in a situation where we have to make vital commercial choices,” said SITEC’s Nelson Fernandes. “If we start to think that there are people here who do not get enough to eat, possibly our development objectives could break down. There’s a segment of potential users that could be decisive in this situation of political, economic, social, moral morass. We have to give those people that opportunity. Any other way is a longer path to development.”

What’s your phone worth to you?

On the eve of the 21st century, close to half the human race still lacks telephone access. Developing nations are quickly outstripping wealthy nations in phone installation by almost three-to-one. But the bulk of these phones has gone to Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America.

Statistics on telephone accessibility released by Jeune Afrique Economie in December reveal the obvious — Africa is way behind. At present only the most elite of African fingers can do the walking. The vast majority of Africans must rely on word of mouth to communicate with one another.

The Goliath of per capita connectivity in the African region is the Seychelles Islands, where 17 percent of the population has a telephone line. The closest rival is Mauritius, with just under 12 percent.

Once you hit the mainland, the numbers drop significantly. In Sub-Suharan Africa, less than 1 percent of the population has a telephone line. Even northern countries like Algeria and Egypt have less than 5 percent of the population wired. Niger and Guinea-Conakry tie for the title of Africa’s least-wired nations, with only 14 percent of the population. War-torn Liberia is close behind at .16 percent.

South Africa is the undisputed leader in continental connectivity, with 9 percent of the population covered by 3.8 million telephone lines. Telkom, the $2.8 billion state telecommunications company, employs nearly 60,000 South Africans.

Beyond having access to a telephone line is the more immediate problem of being able to pay for it.

For the average Zambian consumer, getting wired translates into spending less than 1 percent of monthly income for telephone service.
The Ugandan, on the other hand, has to shell out 10.3 percent of his salary for phone service.

Kenyans pay almost double that, 25.7 percent of per capita income. In Chad, telephone and Net connectivity can be afforded only by the truly privileged— it would cost a whopping 83.77 percent of the average monthly pay check.

Of course, such statistics are skewed by Africa’s extremely lopsided wealth distribution, where a handful of urban millionaires with cell phones can raise the total per capita income, but a majority population of paupers earns only mere fraction of the statistical median.

A growing number of Africa’s state-owned telecom monopolies, such as Cameroon’s Intelcam, are flashing “for sale” signs at the private sector in a move that development experts say will bring in foreign know-how, state-of-the-art equipment and eventually greater access an affordability.

Copyright by Brett Allan King and/or publication in which story first appeared
Do not reprint without permission

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