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Africa: a tech adopter or innovator?

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By Bill Buckle, strategic director and functional consultant/analyst at Dac Systems.

In terms of the capacity to use IT, Africa cannot be looked at as a single homogenous region – some areas are still under-developed and some are far along the development path. Most developing regions (and Africa is no exception) abound in examples of systems that are not used for lack of basic ICT education, a lack of secondary equipment, reliable power supply or adequate communications infrastructure.

Standard commercial PCs and IT equipment require "normal office conditions" to function effectively – reasonably temperature-controlled, relatively dust-free environments with stable power supplies. In rural areas, which constitute the greater part of Africa, these conditions simply do not prevail and do not suit the use of the typical, inexpensive, off-the-shelf PC.

Infrastructure to maintain this equipment is rare outside of the main towns or even major cities.

To date, hard selling from manufacturers and vendors, perceptions that the latest technology will somehow solve problems, donations from well-meaning organisations, political self-interest and pressure from computer professionals ("push") have done more to spread computing in Africa than user demand because real problems are being solved ("pull").

Dumping ground

What Africa has experienced so far is ICT transplantation, rather than transfer – dumping of "boxes" without local establishment of the necessary know-how.
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In sub-Saharan Africa, there is still minimal recognition of the power of computer-based knowledge management and computer-aided decision-making for economic and social development. Computers are therefore primarily used for routine data processing.

The lack of national ICT strategies and developmental policies, which focus on where ICT could add immediate value given available resources, has been problematic. On one hand, ICT system implementation by government has been unfocused, and on the other hand, some policies have hampered commercial involvement in creating the necessary ICT infrastructure.

Relative cost is another factor which hampers extensive ICT use. Even though prices are dropping, in the developed West a laptop typically costs a fraction of a programmer's monthly salary – in Africa this could amount to a year's wages or more.

Winds of change

But things are changing in many nations throughout Africa and some of the key issues are being successfully addressed.

  • In recent years, countries such as Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia, The Gambia, Cote d'Ivoire, Angola and others have formulated and published national ICT strategies and have either created or updated national ICT policies so as to encourage commercial investment in all sectors of ICT. They are also encouraging entrepreneurs to get involved by easing licensing regulations.
  • To provide internet in order to give access to government services and educational material, tele-centres have been opened in many cities, and in numerous countries this is mushrooming. Six years ago, Kenya set out to provide 210 ‘digital centres' (to provide government services) covering all the main towns, and even though it fell well short of the target and only 63 were set up by 2013, this is a still a major step forward.
  • Several of these nations now offer ICT as university subject and some have introduced ICT curricula into secondary education.
  • Though power remains a problem in most rural parts of Africa, solar power, though still expensive within the African context, is slowly being introduced and is available in highly portable forms to power cellphones, smartphones and laptops.
  • Cellphone network coverage is being rapidly extended (ie, Tanzania coverage now exceeds 80%) bringing with it potential ICT access to the previously ‘digitally disadvantaged'. Many rural people are now able to carry out personal and commercial payment transactions through this means.
  • A good example to illustrate the pace of these developments is Tanzania. In 2005, tele-density (measured as the number of people per hundred who have access to ICT) was a mere 1%, but as of June 2008 it had increased to 25%, and by the end of 2009 the figure was 43%. The country now has a fully competitive telecommunications sector and one of the fastest growing ICT markets in Africa. Most subscribers have more than one mobile phone line.

The introduction of inexpensive smartphones is set to revolutionise ICT in Africa.

The spread of mobile phones and development of associated networks is the biggest single ICT breakthrough in Africa. Cellphone use is becoming almost ubiquitous and the sight of a near-naked Himba on the side of a deserted road in Northern Namibia talking on a cellphone is a breathtaking reminder that this technology is taking Africa into the digital age.

While the cellphone provides very limited ICT functionality, it has introduced the rural African to ICT technology – and powerful smartphones are starting to replace these cellphones, providing access to information and offering the ability to transact in a digital world. The introduction of inexpensive smartphones, together with extending of mobile network coverage, both driven by purely commercial motives, is set to revolutionise ICT in Africa.

An indicator that this is where things are going is the significant reduction in fixed-line phone users in most of these countries and an explosion in cellphone usage.
This wholesale adoption of mobile technology, opening the way for cloud computing, may see Africa leapfrogging some older, developed countries where some users are suspicious of the cloud and thus slow to adopt this innovation.

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