Connectivity and Inequality: The African Internet

Published Dec 11, 2003
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When web use started becoming commonplace in the mid-1990’s, the consensus seemed to be that the Internet was a tool that could bring democratic rights to the people, without government filtering or control. The information revolution became the hope of many – especially intellectuals – who saw the new communication practices as a possible gateway to broader, more equal distribution of information. The most enthusiastic of the internet-as-democratic-tool set were hoping for information revolutions all over the world, including communications-challenged areas such as Africa.

Connectivity and Inequality: The African Internet-Link

Africa is reaching for a place in the world’s Internet community

Today, the view is much more sober, as most people have realized that the information revolution – which has to be based on a propagation of communication technologies – is as much a question of distribution of wealth and other resources as any other technological advance. It doesn’t automatically spread to everybody who may want to use it.

In some ways, the emergence of the Internet has lived up to its promise, and played an important part in bringing about change in troubled areas. For instance, during the students’ demonstrations in Belgrade in 1996, that were instrumental in bringing about the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic, students used the Net as an organizing tool to coordinate the protests. At the same time, the web became the single media channel open to the world, bringing daily news of what went on in the Serbian capital across the globe. And there can be no doubt that the Internet has facilitated the distribution of ideas and ideologies in ways that have brought the causes of groundswell movements such as the Chiapas of Mexico to the world at large.

The African experience is different. The revolution simply hasn’t arrived, for simple reasons. Let’s take a look at the status of online communication on the African continent.

All of the 54 countries and territories in Africa have Internet access in the capital cities. In most urban areas, Internet use has grown relatively rapidly. Five years ago, only a handful of countries were connected to the Internet through local services. But, in spite of these trends, the difference between the levels of development in the area of modern communications is much larger than in other traditional measures of development. According to estimates, of the 816 million people living in Africa in 2001, only 1 in 130 have a PC, and only one in 160 use the Internet. It is difficult to measure the exact number of Internet users, due to the common practice of account sharing, and the heavy dependence on public access services. All indicators point to continued growth in connectivity, but a much slower one. Many of the people who can afford a computer and telephone have already connected. As of June 2002, the number of registered dialup Internet subscribers numbered around 1.7 million, up 20 percent in the last year. Among these, 1.2 million subscribers are located in South Africa and the North African states, the wealthiest regions on the continent. The forty-something remaining countries in Sub-Saharan Africa register only 500.000 subscribers.

A keyword in describing African connectivity is sharing. Each Net connection usually supports four or five users. The sharing is most prevalent in the private market, but is also a key figure in corporate networks. Many businesses join together and share computers and e-mail accounts, creating communication patterns that are very different from what we are used to in the West. The pattern of shared accounts gives us an estimate of around 6-8 million Internet users in Africa, with around 2 million from the countries south of the Sahara desert, excluding South Africa. In other words, Africa has approximately 1 user for every 300-400 people. In comparison, the world average is about 1 in 15, with Europe and North America at the top of the list with 1 in 2 people connected.

The communications infrastructure in Africa has been a result of a policy based on concerted development initiatives. The African Telecommunications Union (ATU) was created in 1999 as a successor to PATU (the Pan-African Telecommunications Union), which was established by the 12th Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1977 as the Specialized Agency of the OAU in the field of telecommunications. Their mission has been “to make Africa an equal and active participant in the Global Information Society”. The mission statement reflects the common policy that has been agreed on by the 54 culturally and politically diverse African states, but one must assume that it will be enforced according to each government’s interests.

With so many perspectives on what is in Africa’s best interests, the statement can be read to mean several things. One: They want to get Africa wired as soon as possible to allow governments and people to communicate with the rest of the world on the same level as other countries and continents. Two: They want to enable foreign investments in infrastructure and information technology in order to generate revenue. Three: They want to make sure that as much of this revenue as possible is kept by the participating governments, as opposed to privately owned businesses. Four: They want to be in control of how Internet use develops in Africa. This can mean that they want to be able to keep tabs on what Africans say and do online – and to censor unwanted content. It can also mean that they want to make sure that the information revolution/evolution in Africa happens on African terms, not according to an American or European notion of how it should happen.

All of these interpretations are present – with different emphasis – in the union’s member countries. Much of the potential success of the union’s plans for universal access and a working infrastructure depends on active African participation in, and control over, the implementation process. This actually demands a delicate balance. In order to invite investors, there must be sufficient openness and transparency to allow them to see the business opportunities clearly. At the same time, each government has it’s own views on nationalization, censorship, and distribution of revenue, and these views have to be harmonized with investor interests.

As for how the Net is used in Africa, the emphasis is on e-mail and information gathering. Electronic commerce is virtually non-existent. While large numbers of organizations now have a Web site with basic descriptive and contact information, very few actually use the Web for real business activities. This is largely due to the limited number of local people that have access to the Internet (and thus the limited importance of a web presence a given business), the lack of credit cards and online payment systems, the limited skills available for digitizing and coding pages, and also the high costs of local web hosting services.

The development of African connectivity will depend largely on the same factors that govern other kinds of technological progress: It is a question of resources. As long as telephones and computers are beyond the means of most of the continent’s inhabitants, widespread connectivity will not happen. At least according to western models of Internet distribution. The idea of sharing computers, and especially accounts, may allow for a different kind of online society in Africa, with access to information, and focus on interpersonal communication. This will at least create an environment for sharing ideas across borders. The business opportunities envisioned by the ATU are farther off, though, and the forecast is that e-business will take a back seat to information-sharing and other less commercially interesting communication practices. Hopefully, ATU’s real legacy will be an African Internet that reflects the specific needs of Africans.

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