Calling for a paradigm shift of ICT policies in Africa for growth to the next level

Author's name: 
Muriuki Mureithi

Calling for a paradigm shift of ICT policies in Africa for growth to the next level
In Nov 2005, Africa proudly hosted the second and final phase of WSIS in Tunis and latched itself among the community of nations to usher the emerging information society into Africa. For Africa, the ambitious commitment like other continents called for among others …. commitment to build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential —- (http://www.itu.int/wsis/docs/geneva/official/dop.html). WSIS took note and recognised the need for infrastructures and that ICTs would need to be regarded as tools and not as an end in themselves to realise the WSIS goals .. Two years later, in Oct 2007, Africa and the development partners met in Kigali to operationalise the principles committed in Tunis. After the fanfare dwindled, a cursory review of the commitment depicts great strides by Africa in absolute terms. Cellular for example has been growing in double-digit terms. Unfortunately, this growth compared with other continents is low and the gap is wide. By end of 2010, Africa had the lowest penetration of cellular with 41% against 76% globally, penetration of broadband by 2010 was lowest at 9.6% far behind the rest of developing countries at 21% and against the world average of 30% (http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/facts/2011/material/ICTFactsFigures2010.pdf ). Penetration of fixed broadband stood at less than 1% compared with 24.6% in developed economies. In a competitive global information society, Africa is clearly not equipped to compete.
Can the situation change? –yes, it is feasible. In early 90’s, national ICTs (read telecommunications) were controlled by governments in virtually all countries in Africa and all were monopolies. Penetration was around 1% in most of SSA, unaffordable, poor quality and 80% of the connections in the urban areas that served less than 20% of the population. The vision by Maitland Commission in Arusha Tanzania to realise a telephone within working distance by early part of 21st century appeared far-fetched.
Areas of intervention
With a change of policy framework for the management of ICT sector, this changed radically. Dismantled telecommunication monopolies ushering competition, new technologies changed the ICT sector ushering the fastest growth rate in world. That growth as noted in the foregoing still places Africa far behind the rest of the world. The policies of the day focused on supply side, narrow band and technologies. Today, they are no longer valid and it is critical to take to the growth paradigm to the next level – from narrowband paradigm to broadband and its benefits predicated on increasing relevant content. From basic communications, ICTs are to be seen as a as a tool for empowerment, access to opportunities and the generally a space to share, learn and express opinions as committed in WSIS. With majority of least developed countries in Africa and the majority among the low economy bracket, the greatest challenge is capacity to pay for services and affordability continues to hamper use, and rollout of the networks . Another fundamental issue is the capacity to use. High levels of illiteracy particularly in rural areas affect use value particularly the internet. Going forward it is necessary for the stakeholders shift focus to design and enact policies that address and intervention on constraints on the demand side. Key demand side challenges include; – Access to ICTs – mobile technology has expanded coverage rapidly and increased penetration to the the current over 41% population in SSA. This coverage is on 2G with 3G now expanding. Demand for data calls on supplementing technologies. Policies that support access to broadband spectrum, open access to fibre are critical. Most importantly it is critical for governments to conceive broadband strategy and universal access frameworks to ensure access across the country . – Affordability – in 2010, developing countries including those in Africa reported the steepest fall in the cost of at broadband of up to 52% (http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/facts/2011/material/ICTFactsFigures2011.pdf ). Despite the steep fall the tariffs still represent a very high component of the household income . Governments and all stakeholders need to review continuously the ICT value chain with a view to identify the cost structures and where costs can be brought down. Many governments have worked to reduce or even eliminate taxes on ICTs, unfortunately , bureaucracy, business risks, and operational issues often increase costs which are transferred to the consumer and become a barrier – Availability – while access is now widespread however, it is noteworthy that all the large mass countries have yet to realise 100 % land mass coverage. This implies that some citizens are yet to use ICTs. In SSA this coverage is less than 50% of the land mass – Quality of access – even with increasing access, the speeds on internet is critical . Low speeds reduce the experience of exploiting ICTs . In 2011, Africa had the lowest bit per capita at 2000bits/s per internet user against Europe at 90000 bits/s per internet user(http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/facts/2011/material/ICTFactsFigures2011.pdf ). Policies to support broadband – fixed or mobile and bandwidth are critical and urgent. – Content – the early occupants of the cyberspace built and continue to build incredible amount of content. Research carried out by the author of this article among others, in various parts of continent clearly demonstrate low use value of this content. This needs to be urgently addressed by proactive policies that build content by Africans for their use. Availability of content in Africa is not an issue, it is the strategies to digitise ,codify and push content into the web – Supportive regulatory frameworks – some of the legal regimes hamper access, and sometimes criminalise access, filter content or even switch off the internet. Secrets laws prevent access to critical government information. Open Government as pioneered by some governments including Kenya is a way forward
Relations of internet to human rights
Overcoming these constraints ushers increased use of internet while obstruction whether active or passive have negative consequences of internet access and use. As clearly stated by WSIS, internet is fundamental to access information, share, express and create new ideas. This is the information society that we all want to secure for humanity. Any action that impedes access to the internet for its citizens obstructs the enjoyment of the fundamental human rights as defined in UDHR. Indeed some countries – France, Finland, Spain have equated internet access to a right. This has not happened in Africa , however most of the countries have developed a universal access framework which seeks to guarantee basic access to all the citizens . Universal access provides a starting point to commit to access to the internet by governments. Next step being rolled by pioneering countries is a broadband strategy and its universal access . A key component of the broadband strategy is the right to access good quality internet across the country. There are very persuasive arguments that internet is a just a technology just like the printing press invented by Gunterberg in 1634 and thus should not be a human right . In the arguments we should not lose sight of what internet opens for human kind – the inalienable human rights . Guarding internet access is guarding the space we yearn for.

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