AFRICA`S NEW HOPE?
Osei Asante Gyapong
Internet Status in Africa
Advantages of the internet for Africa
Problems facing internet in Africa
The theme of this paper is better highlighted by first and foremost taking a look at the general character of the internet, the rapid growth of this media and the African internet status.
Internet, over the past decade has become such an intrinsic aspect of society that it is nowadays even next to impossible to imagine a life without accessibility to the world wide web. Whereas at the beginning of the nineties, access to this form of information technology was only available to a privileged few, nowadays anyone, from street children in Brazil to entrepreneurs in Iceland can be wired if they desire to do so. This rapid growth of the Global Information Society has resulted in the movement of billions of bytes of information on a daily basis, which in its own way is and has created a new world order.
Dissidents in countries like China for example are able to “smuggle” out E-mails telling the rest of the world of the going ones in their country. On a financial note, two names, Yahoo & Amazon tell us about the economical possibilities of the internet. Taking a look at the personal side shows us the chat rooms where people get together to exchange views and ideas, homepages that are created on a daily basis. To present day, there is next to no information that one cannot obtain on the web, from Adam to Zulu it is all there and everyone has access to it, to enable that person to enrich his or her life.
The questions that in the context of this symposium however arises are:
Does everyone have access to the internet and can everybody use this form of technology to attain an improved standard of living?
b. What is the state of the African Internet Status
Internet Status In Africa
Internet has not only grown rapidly in the westernized world over the last few years, the growth of the internet on the African continent has witnessed a remarkable increase over the past years. Whereas in 1996 only 11 of the 54 African countries where online, by the end of 2000 all 54 countries had achieved permanent connectivity.
This rapid growth of internet access across the continent has however been mainly confined to the capital cities, with very few secondary towns and cities being connected. In terms of connectivity, the total number of computers permanently connected to the internet in Africa runs up to about 30 000. This means that Africa has about as many hosts on the net as does a small eastern European country such as Latvia for example. For a continent which has about 13% of the world population (an estimated 780m people according to Unicef) Africa has less than 1% of the world’s internet users, the number of internet users in Africa running at an estimated 2.5 million, compared with 136 million in North America, 83 million in Europe and 679 million in Asia. Of the 2.5 million almost two thirds is taken up by North and South Africa leaving about a third for the remaining 50 African states. The figures in Africa point out to an internet usage of about one internet user for every 250 people as compared to a world average of one user for every 35 people and a North American and European average of one user for every 3 people. In the same respect it is also safe to say that the urban / rural user ratio in Africa lies predominantly on the side of the urban user. Currently the monthly cost for an internet connection in Africa exceeds the monthly salary of a significant portion of the population, the average total cost of using a local dialup account for 5 hours a month being around 50 US-Dollars, excluding telephone charges. Comparing this to the present day European flat rate charges e.g. aprox. 40 US-Dollars a month in Germany for unlimited use.
The huge costs of internet dialup has also resulted in a rapidly growing interest in internet-kiosks, cyber-cafes and other forms of public internet access, such as adding PCs to community phone-shops, schools, police stations and clinics which can share the costs of equipment and access amongst a large number of users. Many telecommunication centers are now adding Internet access to their services as well are a growing number of hotels and business centers.
Evidence gathered about internet usage on the continent shows that there are about one incoming and one outgoing e-mail per day. This averaging about 3 to 4 pages and most communications being with people outside the continent. Surveys also show that about 25% of the e-mails are replacing faxes, while 10% are replacing phone calls and the other 65% are communications that would not have been made in the absence of e-mail system. The highest number of users surveyed belonged to non-government organizations, private companies and universities. As with regard to the development of the contents of their web pages, African internet is nearly as advanced as the west. Although most countries have web-sites unofficially or officially representing their respective countries, only a handful of African businesses are online for purchasing. The vast majority of African commercial sites are mainly informational sites.
On the whole, although the present cost of internet connection is still relatively high, although internet availability in Africa is limited and although the majority of information and messages about African countries and issues on the internet as well as the hosting of the African internet mainly comes from host computers in Western countries, with the African source itsself acting on a rather small scale, one should not underestimate the potential of the Internet within the borders of the continent and to what extent it can rise. As communication cost continue to decrease the share of information coming from African non-govermental organisations an business as well as goverments and individuals is certain to increase once the necessary infrastructure is maintained for the developmeent of the Iformation and Communication Technology.
With the Internet Status in Africa improving on a daily baasis and also improving almost as rapidly as its western counterpart has done in the past couple of years, it is now time to find out what advantages Internet can bring to Africa and how this media can be exploited.
One has to bear in mind that the African continet is lagging behind in terms of absolut technological and even political development. Time does not however lie on our side and we cannot to a certain extent go through the same laborious procedure of development the other continents went through in the history of development. Globalisation does not and will not allow this lumburios form of development and so every now and then Africa will have to take gigantic leaps to keep up with the flow.
The Internet could be one of these leaps that would enable Africa to move a definite step forward in its development and so we ask ourselves…….
What are the Internet Advantages for Africa?
In the past couple of years there have been numerous discussions about The African Renaissance and the New Century being the African Century. These pictures of a new Africa cannot be taken without the global market, the global family and the new world order. In order to take its rightful place at the table the African continent and its citzens have to be able to stand up to the pressures of the modern technologised system and also acertain its competiveness on the market. If the African Elephant wants to roar it must first learn to stand on its feet. The communications field is one of the centers where Africa has a chance and Internet could be the gateway to a new Africa. A few examples of these advantages are;
finances / businesses
Most African educational institutions do not have any meaningful internet access. According to a survey done by the Association of African Universities in 1998 52 of the 232 academic and research institutions respending had full internt connectivity while the 180 others had access that was “inadequate”. Now, to increase the accessebilitiy of secondary and tertiary learning institutions to the internet would mean a vast increase in information resources. Internet can create access to good libraries and new books, to journals and scientific articles in short to all the information an academician may desire. Unfortunately due to this lack, many academics are suffering from isolation and information technology could provide a way for overcoming this isolation. Also the brain drain affecting africa, with young intellectual men and women leaving their countries for the promises of a better life outside could be reversed. In this respect academics could get together on the net to share ideas and exchange views much faster and effectively than they could ever do before.
In Africa most journals available in the learning institutions are long outdated. Electronic versions of journals downloaded from the internet and branded on CD-ROMs could be the libraries of the future.
The creation of virtual classrooms and virtual learning as is becoming widespread in the western world could create educational accessability as far as into the rural areas where students can communicate with instructors via e-mail, fax and telephone if necessary without being dependent upon the boarding system and having to pay very high educational fees which are not affordable for many a student. In this case a postsecondary education could be pursued through a village “internet café”.
In order to achieve the African renaissance, africa needs a new and enlightend leadership that can effectively cope with increasing demand of the new world. The universities must provide this leadership and the internet could play a very essential role in helping to provide this leadership.
How can politics and democracy in Africa be positively influenced by the internet. The internet can be used to monitor goverments and their tronghold over the media. Political newsletters that can be read everywhere worldwide can give an up to date and firsthand view of what is politically happening in a country. People can share views, discuss ideas, compare thoughts as well as compare the state of their country with other neighbouring countries without being compelled to assimilate biased and censored forms of information. The anonymity of the internet enables views to be openly expressed with fear of repercussion. In times of elections the net can be used as a “silent” observer to ensure peaceful and fair elections thus leading to a peaceful implementation of democracy and justice.
By creating democratic awareness through the internet, by giving the people of a country ready access to the laws and by-laws of a country, by showing them that regardless of where they may be situated, their voices can and will reach millions of people in a matter of seconds, minutes or hours, a new political awareness can be achieved in which politics is no longer a tool of the priviledged upper class but rather a medium for the masses. A medium that enables them to dictate their own future. Information is no longer a foe but rather, through the internt becomes a friend.
Africa´s greatest asset lies not in its natural resources, nor in its riches or the vastness of the continent. Africa´s greatest asset lies in its people. 780 million able bodied men and women waiting and willing to work to build up their continent. Yet this asset is being decimated on a daily basis, not only by famine and wars, but also by a very redundant infrastructure that is the second largest industry in Africa as well as the most complex and to a certain degree also the most ineffective. The health care system. The lives of many an African could have been saved or prolonged had there been adequate knowledge, technology and information on hand. Getting the modern and advanced technology as is the case in European and American countries may be something that a number of countries may not be in the position to afford.
However the knowledge and information about all types of diseases and illnesses is out there on the web for next to free of charge. And once a medical practitioner knows what can of illness he or she is dealing with, there may not even be the need of extraordinary technological equipment to cuer a person of this disease.
One has to bear in mind that the life expectancy of most African countries has decreased below the expectancy these African countries enjoyed in the 1960s. Epidemics have ravaged through the continent, spread of infectious diseases, tuberculoses, malaria, high infant mortality and now HIV/AIDS have all taken and are still taking their toll. Most of these diseases which are actually curable and preventable are posing a big threat to the African economic sector as they eradicate a working force.
Most of the african health crisis is as above mentioned not only caused by a lack of technology or resources but rather by a deficit of information and adequate communication strategies. Communication strategies not only in the sense of providing the medical sector with journals and knowledge (only a minor portion of the worlds medical knowledge reaches Africa), but also in the sense of changing attitudes to diseases (many Africans see AIDs as a result of being cursed by someone else), to life styles (nuitrition that may induce arteriosclerosis) and also changing the quality of the lives of families and communities (adequate waste disposal).
Information technology and as such the internet could play a major role in the improvement of the health sector in Africa. Opportunities could range from improving management and administration, supporting research and teaching facilities. Over 90% of the African population live sin rural areas. Many of these people who cannot afford primary health care tend to turn to tradtional medicine. Acummulating and sharing this information could lead to cheaper effectiver methods of curing illnesses. This and primary health care informatiion could be packeged into programme content for community radios and telecenters. One should bare in mind that the internet performs on a visual and audio basis. More people could get an improved access to and benefit from information on better choice of food, safe water, basic nuitrition, child care family planning and so on.
The most significant benefit of internet in the health sector could be on the HIV/AIDS sector.
The internet can be used to disseminate information within and without Africa as relating to the Aids epidemic. This media can help in gaining information about the widespread of the disease. Afflicted individuals can read about the various stages of the disease and learn how to cope with each stage. An internet based discussion forum and news group such as Nigeria-Aids can be used to combat Aids in resource poor enviroments. In the case of Nigeria-AIDS this forum currently has almost 500 members who write in to exchange ideas and circulate information on their work and the Aids situation in Nigeria. 500 members may not sound like a lot, but it is 500 more than would be the case without internet accessability. What about malaria research and exchange of information via internet and satellite. All these methods and possiblities of increasing health improvement in Africa, thus also increasing life expectancy can in the long run lead to an economicaly viable continent.
Finances / Business:
A lot of financial institutions and middle sized companies can vastly reduce costs and still be highly effective and competitive just being being on the internet.
Whereas in Ghana for example building a house in the country whilst being in the diaspora meant having to find a trustworthy person to send the money to and hope that the house would someday eventually be built, now owning a house in Ghana is only a matter of clicks. Click onto the site of the Home & Finance Company, click onto the house of desire, fill in a formula send it away, a reply comes per e-mail, payment modulations are smoothed out contracts are received signed and sent of and a house has been purchased. The advantage of this is that it does not limit the purchasing of houses to citzens of the country alone. Anyone who desires to settle down in this country can rather comfortably and without much ado purchase a home. This can therefore lead to increased tourism and foreign investment thus leading to increased revenue for the country of concern.
In terms of investment, a number of African countries now have stock exchanges and as such there are a quite a number of active stock brokers in Africa. Whereas years ago stockbroking and investing on the financial market was also only for a priviledged few, now as in the rest of the world, anybody interested in investing in Africa can take a look at the stocks online, read the profiles of the companies on these African exchange markets and decide for his or herself to invest in the African stock market. Most Important of all it also gives Africans in the diaspora an opportunity of investing their hard earned money usefully at home without the money withering away in banks. Hard currency is invested, revenue is obtained and the state of the economy get better.
Small business companies can also sell their products per e-commerce over the internet without having to have any middleman. Thus once again reducing costs and increasing profits. A small handicrafts company can place a catalogue of its products on the net and whenever an order is placed, the article is produced and then sent to its destination. Thus producing only on demand and not in excess, a positive side effect of the internet for such businesses. This can and will also encourage internet start ups which will give the upcoming generation an urge of productivity and creativity thus leading to more self-dependence. In terms of businesses and finance the inetrnet can also provide a database to identify new opportunities, jobs, skills and general information thus empowering more people. Investment in Africa is very crucial to the development of the continent and potential investors can use ICT as a platform for information on Africa.
The internet has also made keeping up to date, a relatively easy business in the new era. Whereas, right up to the mid-ninenties keeping abreast with the news in ones home country was more often than not restricted to being dependent upon others who had just been to their native country on holiday, or upon waiting for a letter from home, which at times could take up to weeks on end, it is now possible to communicate with family members even on a daily basis if one wishes. In the same respect it is also possible for Africans in the Diaspora to read newspapers of their respective countries on a daily basis. Important about these two types of communication is that:
family ties are not drastically severed as they used to be. Where communication or contact between family member was sporadic, now it is possible to be effectively and effeciently informed about family matters and also “actively “ participate in family affairs back home. This is a moral and psychological benefit for both parties involved.
On the aspect of the internt newspapers, one gets firsthand information about the political and economic affairs in the home country or even just news in general. This as well as the above mentioned both give a sense of belonging which is very important for any person in the diaspora, especially in countries where intergration is not as smooth as it should be.
A third type of communication can be attributed to newsletters, mailing lists and the like. There are numerous numbers of internet sites about African and African related themes, relating from literature through fashion and lifestyle. Just newsletters, chat rooms and forums where subscribers on both sides of the continent get together and communicate can also help create a positve awareness and self esteem, especially amongst the up and coming generation who will someday be the new leaders of Africa.
Thes are all positive aspects of the internet which could influence Africa on a major scale over the next coming years. However in order to get to this stage it is most important to find out and eradicate
The Problems Facing Internet in Africa:
The major obstacles facing the expansion and exploitation of Internet in Africa are poverty and lack of adequate infrastrucure. This combined with illiteracy, a low level of understanding of the benefits internet can bring to the continent, plus a low computer penetration, lack of trained personal and confinement to mostly the capitals make it extremely difficult to utilise this potential to the utmost. Low income on the sides of the would be users make it next to impossible to think about going online when there are much more pressing matters to be attended to and when the cost of an internet connection is more often than not higher the the slary of an average worker. Lack of income and revenue on the govermental aspect also makes it difficult to provide the necessary infrastructure needed to increase the dial-up output. The telecommunications infrastructure in most African countries is sadly inadequate. This and a constant energy crisis in most countries, one has to bear in mind that there are more telephone lines in Manhattan than in sub-saharan Africa, respectively that one third of the African population has no access to electricity, “confines “ internet usage to the educated few or rich thus creating a new class of eliterian Africans.
To the problems facing Internet in Africa could be tackeld by;
governments releasing their stronghold on the telecommunication market and allowing private companies to enter the field. There is a lot of potential on the market as one can observe in the increase of cellular phones for example and a healthy competitive telecommunications market would not only improve the situation but also bring in revenue for the governments.
In the same way that telecommunications is marketed there should also be long term development plans for increasing the electrical output in African countries. Alternative methods of energy such as solar energy should be sought after and scrutinized for their benefits.
The computer “illiteracy” can be dampened by introducing children to computers as early as in primary school. With the help of organisations outside the country computers can be donated to all different levels of educational institutions and computer respectively internet classes can be introduced into the various curricula so as to create the necessary feeling and awareness for computers and the benefits of Internet.
The use of media such as radios, television and newspapers can be used to propagate the benefits of the Internet. Radio shows with prizes or internet related qiuz shows can also be used as a stepping stone.
Internet start-ups especially in the handicraft and tourist sector can be subsidized thus enabling people to become self-dependent.
Opening up the market as mentioned in point a. above will increase competitiveness thus resulting in a reduction of dial-up prices. This will enable more people to afford access onto the net.
Training personnel for the maintenance of internet resources.
So as we see although ther are a number of difficulties to overcome Internet or Information and Communication Technology on the whole could be the new ray of hope for africa and the African Reenaissance of the 21st Century. It is not a question of whether the glass is half full or half empty,but rather if the water in the glass is enough to quench our thirst. Can we use the resources at hand for a better africa, can we capture this ray and use it to bring light into the darkness.
I say we can, but to do so requires a combined effort all Africans, friends of Africa and anybody interseted in the welfare of the continent, to join forces and set the foundation for the exploitation of a technological device which will benefit every person on the continent regardless of race, colour, creed or culture.
This could be the African renaissance, should be the African renaissance and it is up to us to intergrate Africa into the global family.