Is Africa becoming ground for ICT innovation and transformation in ICT policies?

It is amazing to note the growth of ICT in Africa. Truth is that growth is measured in many ways and my measurement is based on the African environment. Many countries in Africa with exception of a few face the same challenges i.e. lack of infrastructure, poverty, education levels, unemployment to mention but a few. However it seems like these challenges have further created a challenge for greater innovation. Developers are each day making conducive ICT gadgets for the African continent or low developed nations. From the 100 Dollar laptop for to two SIM phones mostly from the Chinese market to mobile money, m-health, m-agriculture and many more. One could say that when you are faced with many challenges you find a way to mitigate these challenges and in so doing creating something that is new.

The biggest challenge about such new innovations is that they could go unnoticed or may not receive the attention that they need simply because there are no structures in place. There is need for policies that would help guide development of ICT in Africa and also pick lessons from the developed world. The opportunities for ICT in Africa are immense such as the mobile money industry which has taken East Africa by storm. Africa could easily transform ICT development around the world because there is a lot to learn from say hard to reach regions. ICTs should be enablers for development and not just tools, a phenomenon that is strongly derived from less developed nations.

One can imagine what great impact ICTs could create for a country like Angola noting that it already has diverse opportunities in oil and minerals. For those who have never been to Angola I will endeavour to describe it in one simple phrase. It is one of the “richest” countries and yet in the same breath one of the “poorest” countries. Just imagine the type of transformation that could be created for the nationals if ICT policies were put in place to extend access to the internet, improve education and make ICTs more affordable. Nationals could get employed in other sectors and thus diversify their income channels, language barriers could be broken, trade could be facilitated and education opportunities would arise.

Policies work best when they are backed by governments and sometimes in Africa this could prove to be a challenge because governments still operate in the traditional forms. So in such cases there may be need for a change in mind set and when this time comes a leaf could be picked from policy processes around the world. In creating these policies one would note the significant geographical and infrastructural challenges that one would need to think a little deeper than lessons learned from the past. And in this situation I would like to think that new trends would happen and that these new trends would lead to transformation and innovation.

In the case that governments have not yet adopted ICTs other stakeholders such as development partners and non-governmental organisations could create platforms to share information and create awareness. A policy needs to be understood by all stakeholders because it’s important to use a holistic approach in its formulation and all stakeholders should be able to give input at various stages.

As the millennium development goal (8) states the need to develop global partnership for development, we see that this can only be holistically achieved if ICTs and the internet are present. Having access to ICT is a human right because without it one would have less access to information thus missing out on growth patterns. Research shows that connectivity in Africa is still very poor and yet costs are still high. Much as this is a challenge it may also be an opportunity for Africa in that, cheaper and more accurate technologies would be developed for its environment and this is where policies would play a key role in providing an enabling environment.

When one looks at the developed countries the banking system for example is more sophisticated with online banking and credit cards for ease of trade. This is a step in focus for African countries and with a greater advantage of learning from the challenges faced by the more developed countries. The BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) industry in Kenya is growing and serving as an opportunity for employment. The education system in many regions within Africa also needs to improve with e-education providing diverse avenues for students. Reliability of the internet is important as it does not help to have an unreliable connection, but once again what can Africa do to overcome the unreliability, it is thinking out of the “box”. In my country thinking out of the box might mean climbing a tree to get the best signal due to the hilly terrain” however that may not be sustainable. Solutions to many of these issues are not found in one go, but steps can be made to get there. In some rural regions people have learned to work offline and access the internet for the shortest time possible but in the same breath be able to do what they intended to.

The biggest challenge for Africa even if it has been addressed in some forms is the knowledge, awareness and dissemination of ICT information. People still need a lot of sensitisation for them to see the value of ICT in their daily lives. How could one explain to a farmer in a rural setting the real value of ICT in his/her life especially if he/she is a subsistence farmer? It is a challenge. The first thing one would probably do is carry out sensitisation and try to relate ICT to the subsistence farmer. However what good is sensitisation if accesses to facilities that one needs is non-existent or is very limited? Again it would be a question of what one could do to make it happen. It is not good enough to provide computers in a region and expect that they would be utilised or expect quick transformation.

Access to affordable ICT equipment in developing countries can also greatly improve its utilisation. Looking at the mobile market, it is now easier for more people in Africa to have phones something that was hardly heard of 10-15 years ago or something that was exclusively for the rich. This eventually gave rise to cheap internet access on phones and in the case of Uganda free internet bandwidth on the MTN network again innovation at its best suiting the needs of the people. If one gives you a free dress you may want to wear it at some point besides what do you stand to loose………then eventually you may actually realise that you do like it and go ahead to buy a matching pair of shoes.

Now it is important to note that much as globalisation should be encouraged the internet does pose challenges and dangers especially in environments where structures are limited. When the internet is misused it can be a serious breach to humanity and to the rights of people. There are cases of sophisticated fraud in more developed countries and this is why once again developing countries may learn from these lessons and put controls in place while it is still early. As countries build enthusiasm for ICT in development they should seriously think through structural, policy and protection mechanisms.

There is a lot of publicity on the internet and not all of it is a true reflection of what is happening in specific regions. It is also our responsibility to update this information but due to limited skills not many people in Africa update or contribute to information on the internet. Maybe this is where innovation is needed in creation of sites in local languages targeting local populations. There is also need to sieve information that is distributed to the masses. Children should be protected from pornography and any information that is not good for them.

On the other hand the Internet can be used to advocate for human rights and letting the world know what is happening in certain regions. It is important to have truthful and ethically correct reporting that would not create harm. Human rights do come in many packages and one of these is access to the internet because we live in a global world. The internet enhances access to education and information while information creates awareness and opportunities for development. It is everyone’s right to have access to information so that one can make informed decisions and also contributes to decisions that affect their society.

A person without information is lacking a lot in this world; it is true that the internet is not the only channel for information however in the global world it is almost impossible to do without the internet. So once again is Africa becoming ground for ICT innovation and transformation in ICT policies? ………………………………………………

It depends at how you look at it and what opportunities you see for Africa as a continent