OF THE INTERNET IN AFRICA
the end of the 1980s a new era of possibilities concerning information and
communication technologies (ICTs) has begun in Africa. Satellite
technology, which permits instantaneous transmission of images, has
brought the continent onto international information circuits. The
popularity of other information and communication technologies, such as
the Internet in the 1990s, came at the same time as other monumental
trends such as globalization, economic crisis and democratic change.
Slowly Africans, albeit mostly in urban areas, are learning to use these
the written press continues to report about the development of Internet on
the continent, some African observers warn of its possible disadvantages
and negative effects. But the majority believe that “going online”
will integrate the continent into the “information society” and
facilitate, perhaps even accelerate, social and economic development.
new technologies, particularly the Internet, hold a fascination for many.
It offers great potential, especially as an aid to the work of development
agencies, the media, and non-governmental organizations. The advantages of
using the technologies, they point out, include low-cost communication,
more efficient ways to share information and knowledge, a heightened
presence and visibility for Africa, and less isolation for those studying
and working in African universities and living in rural communities.
using ICTs radically transform life in Africa? How are they being used
around the continent today? Using the Internet as an example, this article
will aim to identify the advantages and disadvantages of the technology,
its uses in Africa, and the challenges of making the technology more
of the Internet in Africa
the majority of African nations today, international aid agencies have
largely contributed to bringing ICTs such as the Internet into more
widespread use, as many of the chapters in this book show. At the end of
1999, all African countries were connected to the Internet except for
Eritrea. Public information campaigns about using the technology have
multiplied, and national chapters of the Internet Society, a global
organization concerned with evolution of communication protocols, have
been established around the continent.
of the Internet, at first mainly confined to the aid agencies, researchers
and some NGOs, rapidly spread to a growing number of users among the
general public. Although it is difficult to know how many people use
computers in Africa, we do know that there were about 15,000 Internet
Service Providers (ISP) across the continent at the end of 1999, according
to Mike Jensen, a well-known South African expert on the Internet. At the
same time there were 500,000 Internet subscribers according to Mr. Jensen,
among others. (Users can be online and not be a subscriber since they can
connect to the Internet without using an ISP.) There were about two
million Internet users in Africa in 1999; half of them were in South
disparities in access and use of the Internet exist among African nations.
As just mentioned, use in South Africa is highest, followed by Sub-Saharan
Africa and then Maghreb countries and southern Africa. Within nations,
although there are some exceptions, the Internet is only present in the
capital or principal cities. The typical African “Internaut” is a
young man, very well-educated, who belongs to the social and economic
the Technology is Used
the statistics about equipment and the number of people with access to
computers and the Internet, what purposes does the technology serve in
Africa? Electronic mail is one of the most popular uses, although most
message boxes are shared by several people because of high costs. E-mail
is certainly an easier channel through which to communicate
internationally since telephone rates and prices at telecentres are so
high. In Mali, for example, a one-minute telephone call to France costs
1,587 francs CFA (US$2.64), to the United Kingdom about 2,153 francs CFA
(US$3.58), and to the United States and South Africa a one-minute call
costs 3,540 francs CFA (US$6).
equipment has contributed to the popularity of cybercentres and other
public access points to computers. For this reason statistics about the
number of computer and Internet users can only be rough estimates because
so many users in Africa have no alternative to cybercentres.
multitude of other uses for the Internet exist. These include enabling
Africans living abroad to engage in national debates by reading local
newspapers online, participating in electronic debates and discussion
groups, and buying or selling goods electronically. African artists can
promote their work by advertising and organizing “virtual galleries.”
People can study online and even work long-distance with teleconferencing
and e-mail. And African countries can promote tourism with webpages about
their cultural and natural sites of interest.
in Africa use the Internet to complement information provided by
traditional news agencies; this includes online news services, radio
programme banks and mail lists. These tools help African media to reduce
costs, save time and be more efficient. According to the Panos Institute,
38 radio stations on the continent have a website, and 14 of these diffuse
many of their broadcasts online. Some major African news organizations
publish online versions of the news; they include Africa Online and the
Panafrican News Agency (PANA), which records 100,000 hits per day (see
civil society website list at end of book).
pilot projects in Africa have demonstrated the enormous potential of
information and communication technologies for development. These include
using Internet for diagnosis and treatment, transfer of medical data,
information on disease control, education, research, and multipurpose
community telecentres, which allow rural communities access to telephones,
fax machines and computers connected to the Internet.
use by NGOs, the Internet is beginning to be used in some universities and
scientific institutions, which helps to compensate for the lack of
training and general availability of scientific and technical information
on site. The few teachers who are connected to the Internet can update
their lessons, and students who are online can use the technology to
access information not available locally. However only a very small number
of educators and pupils are online in Africa.
addition to initiatives such as the Virtual University introduced by the
World Bank and Agence de la Francophonie, and numerous long-distance
learning courses, the Internet allows access for students and academics to
databanks, international research networks, better visibility for African
researchers, and self-learning opportunities.
the moment electronic commerce is not popular or widespread in Africa
because of the small number of online users, consumers’ weak buying
power, and general underdevelopment of e-commerce on the continent. On the
other hand, in South Africa e-commerce is starting to take off, with sales
of US$195 million by 600 South African companies in 1998—a 140% growth
in relation to sales in 1997.
of Internet Use
Internet is a new technology that Africans have not completely
mastered—including the technical backup and expertise required for
maintenance. It has already had a cultural impact on the mostly urban
elites who use the Internet, although many of them are already
“partial” to the Western way of life. On the other hand, the Internet
offers direct exposure to some of the reprehensible facets of the West
such as pornography, criminal networks, racist hate networks, religious
sects, prostitution rings, sex tourism and services offering young
Africans “the chance to find a Swiss or German spouse.”
elites who are already used to the swift pace of online technology which
Paul Virilio, a French specialist on new information technologies calls
“the tyranny of real time,” are gaining more and more exposure to the
rest of the world. But is this a real advantage? For example African users
can inform themselves about every detail of US President Bill Clinton’s
relations with an intern by reading the Starr report online, even if they
have no idea what is going on several dozen kilometres outside of their
city. This exposure, which seems to be based on a latent desire to be
everywhere at the same time and the almost magical power the Internet
seems to possess, is reinforced by the West’s continual domination of
Internet’s contents. All these add to the risk of cultural domination of
Africans by the West.
the same time, however, the Internet contributes to the free flow of
information and helps promote pluralism: censure attempts by numerous
African states have been thwarted through the technology. For example, the
international NGO Reporters Without Borders maintains a website that
provides information about journalists harassed, arrested or killed when
exercising their profession and promotes the right to a free press. Many
other human rights organizations—such as Amnesty International and
Africa Watch—have been able to augment their actions and campaigns on
the continent by using the Internet.
organizers of local development projects in Africa can communicate
directly with donors or with NGOs, and intercontinental networks are
beginning to form through the Internet. And at universities new relations
between students and professors are beginning to form because of the
“equal playing field” in accessing information that the Internet
provides users. Sometimes students can even educate their teachers by
using up-to-date information they’ve accessed on the Internet.
despite these positive developments, the Internet is reinforcing the gap
between principal urban centres and rural areas in African countries.
Information and communication-rich “enclaves” are becoming more and
more separated from the rest of the country, where communication
technology hasn’t changed in the last 20 years or more. It is
interesting to note that on the continent, traffic on each telephone line
continues to grow while traffic per habitant remains weak. The
Internet’s development also accentuates existing inequalities between
the educated and uneducated, the “information haves” and the
“information have-nots,” and those who rely on cyberculture for news
versus those who must rely on more traditional methods for news, including
word of mouth.
and structural limits that prevent the Internet from being accessible to
all Africans include weak teledensity. There are 1.85 telephone lines per
100 habitants on the continent, with 0.52 lines per 100 habitants in
Sub-Saharan Africa. These statistics mask even more marked differences
between the continent’s regions and countries. For example in 1996 South
Africa had 10.12 lines per 100 habitants, Libya had 6.76, Namibia had
5.43, Kenya had 0.82 and Chad had 0.09 lines per 100 habitants.
African countries, despite some exceptions, telephone lines are heavily
concentrated in capital cities. According to the International
Telecommunication Union’s African Telecommunication Indicators 1998, in
Zimbabwe 53.3% of telephone lines were located in the capital city, in
Uganda the number was 64.5%, in Mauritania it was 75%, and in the Central
African Republic 92.2% of telephone lines were located in the capital.
addition to dilapidated telecommunication systems, local telephone
networks are faulty, tariffs are high, and the price of computer equipment
beyond most people’s reach. There is a lack of access to training on
using computers or going online, and very few can provide maintenance for
the equipment. In order to use the Internet, one needs to be educated,
competent in using a computer, and be “open” to the rest of the world.
it can be argued that the Internet will help integrate Africa into the
information revolution and the globalizing economy, it can also be said
that it will reinforce African countries’ dependence on Western
technology and knowledge, as well as the resources needed to purchase
computer equipment and software. This dependency will be exacerbated by
the dynamics of the globalizing economy and the ideology of
ultra-liberalism. And as mentioned earlier, the knowledge and technology
accessed through the Internet is concentrated in and reflects Western
views, values and priorities.
the constantly deregulating and already constraining context of
globalization, African nations are chronically poor and have little room
to manoeuvre. This forces them to rely on international aid agencies and
private operators in becoming part of the information revolution. And by
not implementing coherent strategies now concerning information and
communication technology, African states are passively accepting the
“rules of the game” imposed by outsiders. Thus the role of the state
is becoming minimal while “regulation” is carried out by the market
and aid agencies. All these factors lead to arbitrary choices about, among
other things, the degree and use of the Internet in Africa.
dependence that is shaping Africa’s insertion into world communication
networks goes hand in hand with the outright failure of African nations
(exceptions include South Africa and Senegal) to develop and carry out
proactive policies in the field of new information technologies. These
same nations have been obliterated by the neologism of “the global
village” or the concept of “the information society” in vogue in
African capitals. This is also strongly legitimized by the argument that
the Internet can help bring about development on the continent. Obviously
introduction of the Internet doesn’t suffice to bring about an
information revolution in Africa, promote development and democracy, or
give birth to a “new society.” Technology and information are only
tools; what matters is who has access and for what objectives.
the Internet is mostly used by Africans to communicate internationally,
rather than within the continent. And as mentioned earlier, use is limited
to a relatively small number of people; this is where the challenge of
enlarging and democratizing access to the technology rests. Efforts
focused on doing this include an initiative suggested by UN
Secretary-General Kofi Annan to establish an Information Technology
Service. The service, which is described in The Millenium Report submitted
to the Millennium Summit in New York in September 2000, would train groups
in developing countries in the uses and opportunities of information
technology. It is still too early to assess implications of the Internet
in Africa since relevant statistics are only estimates and quickly become
outdated due to rapidly changing ways the technology is utilized. For
these same reasons it is difficult to determine the Internet’s economic
and social impacts. And a gap still exists between the potential benefits
of ITCs and the reality on the ground, since use is low even among
scientists, at universities and schools, and in areas such as health and
helpful approach may be to try to determine the needs of current and
future Internet users, taking into account the technology’s untapped
potentials. In this way it may be possible to better develop and plan
activities aimed at “high priority” goals. These may include making
ITCs more available for use in the health field, among grassroots
development projects, promoting education, and assisting the most
and promotion of the Internet within these areas can be adapted to each
specific user group. But the challenge of adapting the use of ICTs to user
groups must be based on a pragmatic approach that is dictated by each
group’s needs and wants, rather than across-the-board decisions about
the number of hookups needed, for example. It also implies that
constraints to ICT use, such as illiteracy and access to electricity and
telephone services, will be addressed. In addition to developing local
expertise such as among African technicians and specialists, more
political will needs to be aimed at using ICTs to improve the lives of the
most marginalized people in Africa, keeping development initiatives alive
once international donors withdraw from the projects, and a commitment to
find funds from national budgets in order to promote further development
will it be possible to begin addressing these multiple constraints and
formidable challenges? To begin, new information and communication
technologies need to receive higher priority, especially in policy
initiatives. If not potentially contradictory and even surreal situations
will be created: schools will be online but without desks and chairs for
pupils, hospitals will have access to telemedicine and the Internet but
will lack cotton and other basic supplies, and despite high demand users
won’t be able to install equipment due to lack of telephone lines. The
enormous potential offered by ICTs, including the Internet, help to shed
light on the new stakes and dilemmas that African states will have to
confront and efficiently manage.
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Voices from Africa no. 9