By Lishan Adam
Coordinator, electronic communications projects
Pan African Development Information System (PADIS)
(Extracted from "Ceres",The FAO Review, No. 158 - March-April 1996)
Wiring the South: Internet and the developing world | Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Section 4 | Section 5
Books and periodicals - their production, transport and storage - cost too much to be affordable to African libraries all but done-in by years of structural adjustment programs. As for individual communications, rural researchers cannot depend on deteriorating postal services. Telephone calls are too expensive, the phone systems too unreliable.
It is beguiling to suggest African researchers look to telematics, a term denoting the convergence of the computing, telecommunications and information sectors, to replace the printed word with data bases, CD-ROMs and electronic mail. To connect to electronic communications networks rural researchers need networking tools (software, hardware, etc.) proven to work hard and long under adverse climatic or isolated conditions. African decision-makers, researchers and field workers also need the resources to maintain electronic information systems. Sustainability is the key concern as, sooner or later, local resources will have to replace short-term external funding and technical expertise.
According to the World Bank Group Vision statement, a global society is "emerging with pervasive information capabilities that makes it substantially different from an industrial society: much more competitive, more democratic, less centralized, less stable, more able to address individual needs and friendlier to the environment." Is this a "wish list" to a rural researcher in Africa?
Over the last few years, low-cost store-and-forward electronic communications links to African countries have been established through small local networks. For the moment, most Africans wanting access to e-mail or larger Internet services are dependent on the telephonic intervention of third parties, usually in the United States. African network users are now lobbying their governments to improve and augment telecommunications infrastructure, particularly to spend the US$100 000 to $500 000 necessary to buy each country a "leased line connection." These lines eliminate the need for that third-party middleman (or his preprogrammed computer) and allow direct and almost instantaneous links to the Internet.
As of 1995 seven African countries (Zambia, Mozambique, South Africa, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Tunisia) had direct links to the Internet. Uganda, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Ghana and Tanzania are currently making plans for full Internet connectivity. There are, in addition, over 10 initiatives to build capacity in networking and put African countries on the Internet.
The cost of leased lines is high for research institutions to bear alone but would be relatively cheap if borne at the national level, as the cost can be shared among thousands of users. Of course, competition for development dollars is intense, and the needs of hungry children and sick villagers may be more compelling than the country's information needs. But paying for a direct link to the Internet can aid a country in utilizing meagre resources more effectively. For example, communications between agricultural researchers and extensionists will encourage dissemination of new approaches ultimately leading to better maize harvests. And fast Internet communications will improve response to emergencies: drought, locust infestation, epidemic.
It is difficult to introduce and maintain electronic networks in Africa, but it is not impossible. Their use will empower isolated researchers. Some of the world's poorest countries, such as Mozambique, Ethiopia and Angola, have already made substantial progress. The cost of equipment necessary for connecting to a national e-mail central (called a "node") is about US$800; a phone line is the only additional resource needed. Using such equipment, an irrigation expert 700 kilometres from the capital of Ethiopia can connect to a node each day to contact his colleagues worldwide, to send greetings to his family in the capital city, to develop joint proposals with an international NGO office in the United Kingdom and Uganda, to follow up on the procurement of lab equipment from Germany and to access data bases on the Internet.
Speed, convenience and low-cost communications are some advantages of electronic communications. A letter sent from Morocco takes weeks to reach Ethiopia. An e-mail message takes less than a day to arrive. Transmission via fax costs US$7-$15 a page; a faxed report can cost the whole monthly salary of a researcher. The same report can be transmitted via electronic mail for a fraction of a dollar. The ability to broadcast one message to multiple users facilitates more cost savings and on-line discussions.
An electronic network is a town square and library all in one: a repository of knowledge and an opportunity for interactive discussion. As opposed to libraries and the mass media, electronic networks engage millions of users in interactive learning in a "virtual college." The availability on the Net of thousands of news groups on almost every topic, mailing lists, on-line data bases, files and on-line books creates conditions under which a veterinarian in remote regions who has access to a telephone and a laptop can participate in knowledge generation and use. An African forestry researcher in Point Noire (Congo) can work on a collaborative research with others in the Amazon. Improvement in the quality of research and education in agriculture can be achieved by linking agricultural colleges to the Internet. African researchers can participate both in use and in the generation of knowledge on the network.
Failure to bring telematics to Africa will leave the continent farther behind than ever, according to a communiqu issued during the Symposium on Telematics for Development in Africa held in Addis Ababa in April 1995:
"Unless African countries become full actors in the global information revolution, the gap between the haves and have-nots will widen, opening the possibility to increased marginalization of the continent. The gap will increase the likelihood of cultural, religious and tribal ghettos leading to regional and inter-regional conflicts."Digital information about developing countries but residing in developed countries can "come home" through telematics: through the Internet an African biodiversity researcher can access research undertaken by foreign consultants working in their own country.
Most of the technical challenges in building links to Africa stem from the region's poor telecommunications infrastructure and unwieldy bureaucracy. Several experts on telecommunications development suggest that liberalization and privatization of telephone networks are the cures for these problems. But African governments fear their national telephone companies will lose revenue if telephone tariffs are reduced. However, the reverse is usually true: low tariffs encourage telephone use and overall revenue can increase, affording improvements to the system.
Although the situation is changing, explicit permission is usually required from national telecom operators before one can install any kind of telephone device. In some countries, only certain brands of communications equipment are permitted and users are forced to buy or rent modems from national telecom operators. Getting computer equipment cleared by customs is another major barrier to network expansion in Africa. Sometimes the equipment is "lost." Refusal to clear imports of computing/communications equipment is sometimes seen as an attempt to limit effective communications, feared as a challenge to official control of information.
Most telecom operators regulate everything, including themselves, but they lack the expertise needed for modern networking technology. There is a fear that electronic networks established by national telecoms would be expensive and unreliable. Experts from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) believe telecom operators should not get into networking until they are divested of their regulatory function and the telecoms market is liberalized.
Lack of foreign currency to purchase equipment and subscribe to networks is the major resource problem facing most researchers. Even when resources are available, information on the use of existing communications and computer equipment is not always disseminated. Institutions that do have modems do not necessarily know how to use them. Once equipment is received and installed, maintenance becomes an issue. All these negatives aside, the private sector computer business is flourishing in Africa and should mean better, more dependable services and greater dissemination of the values of electronic networking.
Illiteracy and the multiplicity of languages in Africa are barriers to network building. As well, the collegial habit of sharing information is not well established between researchers, institutions and governments.
To what extent can radio technology meet demands of researchers and extensionists working in remote areas? Modern radio equipment is unavailable in most countries and too many people give up when faced with Africa's tiresome licensing processes. Winning a licence to operate a radio frequency can take over six months - even when it is needed for relief operations! Some countries do not allow importation of communications equipment for "security" reasons. Demonstrating the technology and involving telecom operators in its promotion can sensitize governments and make radio technology accessible to rural communities in Africa.
African governments pay little attention to national needs for communications and information. Resources are swallowed up by pressing concerns over health care, education, population, food security and defence. The strategic importance of information and communications has yet to be realized by government officials. The apparent correlation between poverty and access to information needs to be made clear to African decision-makers.
Many institutions launching communications networks do not realize users have to be trained in the basics of computing before they dive into the Internet, which requires further instruction. A widespread approach to training encompasses introductory and sensitizing workshops for policymakers and managers, troubleshooting and systems maintenance, training for technicians and national plans for computer education in colleges and schools. Ongoing on-line support is also needed.
The absence of clear, concise documentation covering basics and frequently asked questions slows network usage in Africa. Many local networks are installed by experienced consultants with little time or motivation to write adequate documentation. The absence of indigenous experts in networking is another fundamental problem in Africa. Most countries face a high turnover of experts in computer support and networking.
There is also general ignorance about the potential of networking and the existence of some African facilities to do so. A survey undertaken on communications needs for agricultural institutions in Ethiopia and the Sudan showed that most institutions do not realize they can communicate via their computers and telephone lines. In Zimbabwe, national telecom experts did not know they could access a high-speed Internet link to South Africa from their own country. Some experts of the national telecom operator in Ethiopia believed the maximum data speed of their local telephone link was 9 600 bps when in fact connections to 28 800 bps were possible. Obviously popularization and demonstration of available facilities are crucial.
Existing servers, most of them inspired and funded by foreigners, show little long-range interest in widening interconnectivity in Africa. Out of 101 nodes operating using different technologies, less than 20 responded to a current survey on connectivity in Africa undertaken by the Pan African Development Information System (PADIS) for the UN Economic Commission for Africa. Donor dependency is a major threat to sustainability of information systems in Africa. Many national nodes started with donors' funds covering initial running costs with little effort to generate income from active users. Donor dependency and competition for short-term subsidies undermine sustainability of any effort, including networking.
Marketing strategies and cost recovery measures should be devised from the very beginning. Competition for foreign resources has resulted in several different, competing initiatives in the same country - even in the same institution! There are four networking initiatives in Cameroon and six in Kenya. Meanwhile there are none in Zaire.
In conclusion, it should be said that connectivity should be related to African social, economic and cultural needs. The ability to build self-perpetuating local networks reaching not only the privileged few in cities but also rural researchers is very important. The diversity of Africa requires specific national capacity-building. Regional cooperation is important. Sub-regional collaboration is also useful to bring resources together and to share links.
Algeria (SLIP Internet)
Burkina Faso (UUCP)
Cote d'Ivoire (UUCP)
Egypt (Full Internet)
Ghana (Fido/UUCP/Commercial Internet)
Nigeria (PC UUCP)
Senegal (UUCP, FidoNet)
South Africa (Full Internet)
Tunisia (Full Internet)
Zambia (Full Internet)
Zimbabwe (Full Internet)