Reflection on Africa’s ICT Policy; Capturing Emerging Issues

Information Communication Technologies (ICT) continues to play a leading role in driving economic growth and development. They have been earmarked for attributes such as increasing efficiency, creating access to new markets as well as giving the voiceless a voice. ICT usage continues to grow in Africa, most notably has been the increase in mobile telephony and internet usage. In 2011, a report by MobileMonday, estimated some 500 million mobile phone subscribers in Africa.( According to statistics from the Internet World Statistics, Internet usage as of December 2011 was reported at 139 million representing 3.9% from the rest of the world.( There is also a notable increase in national ICT strategies and regional initiatives; with Twenty-six out of the Fifty Two African countries having a recent/current ICT plan. About 60% of these plans were considered officially active by 2011 as reported by OAfrica.( In retrospect, OAfrica also reports that of the countries with existing policies, it is difficult to pinpoint what success has been recorded. In addition, of the countries that have had active ICT policies, many of these have not been updated, re-evaluated or re-emphasized to suit the current ICT trends and technological landscape.

Many African governments claim to have several e-government strategies in place but the benefits of these strategies is still lacking. The same governments that come up with these strategies seem not to be certain on how to implement them. Reason being that they just succumb to donor pressure to adopt strategies using the latter’s recommendations. So, little or no involvement is solicited from the communities supposed to benefit from these strategies.

With the rapid uptake of social media tools like facebook, twitter, youtube and the like, there is an urgency to constantly update ICT policies to match technology advances. ICT works for instance notes a double increase in Facebook users every seven months in Africa, meaning that more and more people are connecting online and will do so with convenience. There is therefore no doubt that these new technologies are raising new areas that need immediate intervention for Africa to benefit from the technology revolution.

Issues such as Access to affordable and reliable internet, Access to Information, Human rights and the Internet, Cyber Security Management including Child Online Safety, ICTs and environmental sustainability; and content development can be pointed to as the areas that need the most intervention in the near future.

While looking at availing affordable and reliable access in Africa, an assumption was made that the deployment of undersea Fibre Optic cables on the coasts of Africa and laying fibre within most African countries would drastically reduce internet costs. However, this has not been the case for many countries which still depend on wireless connectivity to connect hard to reach areas especially the landlocked countries. Those countries that have seen increased competition in service providers are facing issues of unreliable connections both in voice and data. The increase in smart phones also provides mobile users more options to interact with their devices. Hence it is pertinent that advocacy around affordable and reliable internet access still remains a top priority on the African agenda.

It is however important to note that advocating for affordable and reliable internet access may only be realised if there is readily available content on the internet to share and interact with. Bits of this has been realised with the increase in social media uptake in Africa, where many connect easily to keep tabs with their friends. Nonetheless, African local content has to be developed and shared freely online, hence the need for creating platforms that can spur the development of this area.

Not forgetting that much as we advocate for affordable and reliable internet, Access to information, content development and many more, we need to be mindful of what will happen when all this is in place? It will mean that there is going to be an increase in technology use and innovations. People will be disposing off old ICT like computers and mobiles phones. Now, if this is not properly managed, issues of e-water management come into play. With many African countries still depending on computer donations, relevant e-waste policies need to be developed and implemented to address this area.

The other area is data protection and privacy. As people recognize the power of social media and other technologies, issues of privacy and data protection are seen to be fronted to the agenda. The fact that most of these technologies are free and easy to use, most users do not take the necessary precautions to stay safe from online ‘predators’. This is true for the young generation which is naïve of the dangers of sharing too information. More worryingly is the inadequate or lack of relevant ICT policies to protect ICT users. Policies that protect users both online and offline need to be created and implemented to address the growing dangers of ICTs especially the internet.

The increasing number of ICT usage also implies more conversations are going around online and concerned parties are listening. Governments are becoming repressive handling matters of free speech especially online. This has been seen in restrictive regulatory frameworks and legislations currently adopted to silence people’s voices both online and offline. The recent ‘Arab Spring’ that spread in North Africa played out in the centre of debate on the power of the internet and particularly social media are changing ways in which citizens are connecting online. They demonstrated social media as tools for civic participation and the promotion of human rights. This perhaps shows that people are beginning to realise new ways of using ICT to advance their lives and demand for equal representation. This new urgency is making many users search for new and relevant information online. However, most governments are not willingly ready to avail this information. In instances where this information in available, it may not be easily re-used. Therefore there is an utmost need to continuously demand governments to openly make public data accessible and easy to re-use. This will not only promote openness within governments but it will also spur a wide range of innovations especially in the ICT sector. The private sector will be continuously developing applications to be used in the consumption of this data.

There is a lot of ongoing debate around Human rights and the internet, with some people arguing that access to internet is a right. While there have been disagreements on this, there is no doubt that the internet should be treated as a human rights issue just like the other identified human rights. This is because the benefits that the internet has to offer are many. We are living in an information age where everyone needs to be knowledgeable about their surroundings. The internet today offers information which is free and available for all to access; and should treated as a public good enjoyable by all. The internet offers its users the Freedom of Expression that is not freely encouraged offline. Governments should consider integrating internet access rights into all national strategies. Therefore there is an urgent need to advocate for strong policies that support Freedom of Expression and access to information in Africa.

Although there has been considerable improvements especially with the increased penetration of mobile telephony and national ICT strategies and regional ICT initiatives, there still exists a gap that needs to be filled in order for Africa to take full advantage of the full benefits of ICT. The only way Africa will benefit from ICTs is by having strong ICT policies that match the existing new technologies and ICT trends.