DEVELOPMENT OF THE INTERNET IN BENIN
Benin was one of the first West African countries to connect to the Internet in November 1995 in order to cover the sixth Sommet de la Francophonie. The national public provider of telecommunications, the Office des Postes et Télécommunications (OPT), supplied the technology necessary for access with the help of France Télécom, the French national cable, radio and telephone service. After this, electronic mail in Benin was available via BeninNet. The OPT began offering Internet services in February 1996; in the same year other Internet service providers (ISPs) and several cybercentres began appearing in Cotonou, the economic capital of the country. The Internet also became accessible in Porto-Novo, the political capital.
Public use and promotion of the Internet have multiplied during the last several years; initiatives to encourage use include promotion campaigns, conferences and seminars organized by development agencies, demonstrations of the technology, and “Internet Days” and “Internet Weeks.”
From 17-21 March 1999 the first “Internet Party,” held in Cotonou, was organized by the Benin-based NGO known as ORIDEV in partnership with the Advisory Network for African Information Strategies (ANAIS, see civil society website list at end of book). ANAIS promotes new information and communication technologies and their role in the development of Africa. At the March event ORIDEV, which serves as the local office of the ANAIS network, disseminated documents, organized workshops and held education sessions aimed at youth and local NGOs. The Internet Society of Benin, a national chapter of the Internet Society, was launched in March 1999 in order to promote the Internet. And, among other initiatives, a weekly radio programme on the Internet is also broadcast on local radio station GOLF FM.
Reach of the Internet
In addition to activities described above, Internet use is expanding in Benin as computer utilization in general increases, the new technology is introduced in development cooperation projects, and as more and more companies open cybercentres.
The total number of subscribers to Internet in Benin, which has a total population of 5,750,000, increased from 866 in 1996 to 1,254 in 1997 and 2,372 in 1999. These numbers, however, do not reflect the real increase in Internet use due to sharing of e-mail addresses, use of cybercentres, and free e-mail addresses such as those offered by Yahoo and Caramail. Since some e-mail addresses in Benin are shared by up to four or more people, the total number of regular and occasional Internet users in the country could be around 9,000 people.
The number of Internet service suppliers in Benin grew from five in 1998 to 13 in 1999; all are located in Cotonou. Eleven were businesses and two were non-commercial suppliers, including the Office des Postes et Télécommunications. The OPT is both an Internet access supplier and has a monopoly over traditional telecommunications. It manages the Internet node while other access suppliers are linked to it. Monthly access charges range from around 7,500 francs CFA (about US$13) to 30,000 francs CFA (about US$50) based on the supplier and formula chosen; in addition local communication costs can add 51 francs CFA (about US$0.08) per minute plus 18% in value added tax.
The number of cybercentres in Benin grew from three in 1997 to around 20 at the end of 1999. In the beginning all were located in Cotonou although there are now two cybercentres in Porto-Novo, one in Bohicon in the centre of the country, and another in Parakou in the north. The cybercentres offer “surfing” on the World Wide Web and electronic mail services. One of the most common ways to charge for e-mails sent or received is by the page. Most cybercentres use shared electronic mailboxes, and messages are often delayed in order to be sent at specific times in order to reduce costs. Internet surfing, which is billed separately, is rarely used because of the high cost of telephone charges. Two more sophisticated cybercentres in Benin have a server and their own domain names such as IMEDIA (see civil society website list at end of book).
User rates or prices vary among the cybercentres. Sending an electronic message costs between 900 francs CFA (about US$1.50); an electronic mailbox with unlimited reception costs between 1,000 francs CFA and 5,000 francs CFA per month. In contrast sending or receiving messages costs 300 francs CFA if one pays for a monthly subscription for a mailbox, which costs 2,000 francs CFA. Surfing the Internet costs between 100 francs CFA and 150 francs CFA a minute (about US$0.16 to US$0.25). Some cybercentres bill 1,000 francs CFA (about US$1.70) for every 15 minutes. Two subsidized cybercentres are the Centre System Francophone d’Edition et de Diffusion (SYFED)/Réseau Electronique Francophone pour l’Education et la Recherche (REFER) of the Agence de la francophonie, and the Université Virtuelle Africaine (UVA). They provide monthly subscriptions to students, researchers and professors with unlimited reception of messages for less cost: 1,500 francs CFA (about US$2.50) and 1,000 francs CFA (about US$1.70), respectively. Centre SYFED/REFER, part of a network of French language universities, is based at the national university of Benin. Centre SYFED/REFER is open to teachers, researchers and students who have already completed three years of study and aims to promote scientific and technical information in French on the information highway. The Université Virtuelle Africaine, a long-distance learning programme of the World Bank, uses satellite transmissions to complement African education systems. The UVA in Benin provides, among other things, free access to a virtual library and e-mail accounts.
Around eight commercial websites are currently maintained in Benin, although the volume of information they contain is relatively small and often out of date. Some companies and institutions have webpages on these sites with a brief description of their activities.
Outside Partners and Cooperation Projects
The dynamics of the Internet in Benin are largely influenced by outside forces, namely development projects such as those of the Agence de la Francophonie, Centre SYFED/REFER and the ANAIS network. Others include the World Bank’s UVA project, which aims to promote education and knowledge in Africa through long-distance learning on the Internet, among other things. Since 1998 a local section of the UVA is housed at the Faculty of Medicine in Cotonou with a low-cost cybercentre.
In addition to these initiatives, two other principal projects described below—the Leland Initiative and the Sustainable Development Network Programme—have contributed to development and use of the Internet in Benin.
The Leland Initiative was launched by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in 1995. The project, at a cost of US$15 million, aims to facilitate and encourage access to the information highway in order to help bring about development in 20 African countries. It was conceived within the Global Information Infrastructure initiative, launched by US Vice President Al Gore and also known as the Africa-Global Information Infrastructure Gateway Project.
In Benin about US$500,000 is being spent to establish access of 128 kilobits per second (kbps) as well as supplying and installing equipment, technical assistance and training activities. The project aims to increase the traffic capacity of the gateway and establish a Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT, parabolic aerial) satellite, if after three years the network becomes overloaded. An agreement was signed by USAID and the Benin government on 9 January 1997 for the three-year project. The Leland Initiative aims to reinforce the OPT’s infrastructure and capacities in order to create a favorable environment for the Internet and other information technologies and to promote access to the Internet for civil society and research institutions in Benin. The initiative also aims to promote use of the Internet by the private sector and to liberalize telecommunications in the country; together this should help reduce costs and improve services.
Several activities have been undertaken since the agreement was signed. Gateway capacity, which has been increased to 128 kbps, permits a marked increase in the transfer speed of data between Benin and other countries. And the OPT transmission centre has been offered the opportunity to connect PSIs that are outside of the capital.
After a call for bidders in 1997, the OPT gave approval to eight ISPs in May 1998. A representative from the Leland Initiative was sent to Cotonou at that time to train OPT personnel and provide technical support to all ISPs. USAID also financed training of four OPT agents in Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire) in March 1997. In addition USAID has organized several seminars and workshops in Benin to inform the public about advantages of the Internet and objectives of the Leland Initiative.
A “virtual” regional dialogue was launched by USAID in May 1998 between public institutions and NGOs in the country and in Mali, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire. Participants, who have been trained to use the Internet, exchange information and experiences concerning democracy and decentralization in each of the countries. Subscriptions and equipment necessary for access, such as modems and printers, were offered to each national team participating in the project. More training sessions and awareness-building activities for other institutions and NGOs, as well as the public, are planned.
Pilot projects planned under the Leland Initiative, such as a partnership between schools in Benin and the United States, will aim to familiarize students with the new technology and its uses in the classroom. A USAID mission visited Benin in March 1997 to prepare the launch of the project, known as Globe Schools.
Other pilot projects are also planned in order to help reinforce the capacity of institutions in the areas of economics, the media and information, health and governance. Four institutions have already been identified to participate: the local NGO Songhaï, which specializes in rural development; the Study and Research Group on Democracy and Economic and Social Development (GERDES) in Africa, an NGO focusing on human rights, elections and freedom of press; the West African News Agencies Development (WANAD) Centre, a regional organization based in Cotonou aimed at improving the quality of the media; and the Regional Institute of Public Health, which provides training, carries out research and evaluates public health issues, among other things.
Sustainable Development Network Programme
The Sustainable Development Network Programme (SDNP) was initiated by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 1991. Since 1995 SDNP, which works in ten African countries, has aimed to launch and support local Internet sites and build national capacity and knowledge resources. Some aspects of the project are carried out in partnership with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
The government of Benin and UNDP signed an agreement concerning the SDNP in August 1997. The three-year programme includes establishing a national Intranet to circulate multisectoral information generated in the country. UNDP is also financing participation by Benin senior executives in meetings, regional workshops and international conferences about the Internet.
Other projects of this kind in Benin include a pilot project of the Télécentre Communautaire Polyvalent, financed by UNESCO, ITU and the Acacia Initiative. The telecentre, located in Malanville in northern Benin, will offer access to telephones, fax machines and computers with the Internet. A project focused on training school directors across the country in 1999 has also been initiated and financed by the Agence de la Francophonie via the African Network of Long Distance Learning (see civil society website list at end of book). Courses will be available on the World Wide Web, and communication will be by e-mail.
Uses of Internet in Benin
The majority of Internet users in Benin are international and non-governmental organizations, companies such as large banks and hotels, academics and students, and expatriots and citizens with links abroad such as family and friends or professional ties. Some medical clinics, travel agencies and research centres also have access to the Internet; use is low or practically non-existent among government employees.
Many citizens living abroad can keep in contact with Benin via the Internet by reading online newspapers and participating in electronic debates and discussion groups. The rest of the world can also learn about the country through Internet sites that promote its tourism and culture.
The typical “internaut” is a young, well-educated male who usually has experience using computers through university studies or private courses. He often has some contacts abroad with which he uses e-mail to communicate. He lives in Cotonou or Porto-Novo and can use computers at cybercentres or the company or organization where he works, since he most likely doesn’t own his own computer.
However this is not always easy to do; at the Centre SYFED-REFER, for example, often university professors and students have to wait in line in order to use one of the three computers for the maximum time limit of 30 minutes. Among other things, many students use their time to surf the Internet for scholarships offered in Canada, the United States or European countries.
Many people’s first exposure to the Internet was through development assistance pilot projects aimed at promoting its use. Examples include the Acacia Initiative’s support to a regional health centre in the Ouidah district to use the Internet to communicate with other centres in nearby villages. In this way nurses can avoid travelling to other villages, prevention measures and steps to control epidemics can be put in place more quickly, and preliminary medical information can be communicated rapidly in emergencies. Doctors at the centre in Ouidah and associated researchers can also have online access to scientific literature, disseminate their results and experiences to a greater audience, and communicate with colleagues in other countries.
Some more unique uses of the Internet in Benin can also be observed. The privileged few who have an international credit card can order products from abroad via the Internet. Some presidential candidates have set up their own web pages to make themselves better know to the public; some even post their CV or resumé. One former government minister and head of a political party, Idelphonse Lemon, who was accused by the government of corruption and bad management, created his own website to give his version of events. In his “cyber-explanation” he asks for the reactions of Benin citizens, especially those living abroad, and for messages of support.
In the country as a whole the Internet is not widely used, so it is still too early to determine its impact. Many people, even though they have heard of it, have never seen or used a computer or the Internet. With more and more initiatives aimed at familiarizing them with the technology, this is slowly changing. But for the moment only a select group has had the privilege of using these tools, and even among those with access, the technology is used only occasionally and sparingly. Radio and television continue to be an everyday part of people’s lives at least in the cities, while new information technology has not yet reached such popularity. In fact the technology is still considered the domain of specialized computer users or a “luxury object.”
Limits and Constraints
Weak and inadequate telecommunications infrastructure in Benin has resulted in a concentration of lines in principal urban areas and long delays in establishing new lines. OPT lines already in place are at the saturation point, with frequent breakdowns. Obviously in these conditions it is often difficult for Internet users to access the OPT server.
In addition to the relatively inefficient service offered by the OPT, its tariffs are very high since it holds a monopoly, which brings in much-needed cash to the state. For this reason there is resistance to privatizing the OPT and liberalizing the sector, which would no doubt help bring tariffs down.
Other factors that discourage use of the Internet in Benin include the extremely high cost of equipment needed to go online in comparison with the buying power of the average citizen. The minimum salary in Benin is 25,000 francs CFA per month (about US$42), and a middle manager earns between 100,000 francs CFA (US$168) and 200,000 francs CFA (US$336). A computer costs about 1,200,000 francs CFA (about US$2,000). Other prohibitive factors include lack of choice of equipment on the market and lack of competent technicians to service it. The great majority of schools, colleges and university departments do not have computer equipment, so the majority of students do not know how to operate one. Libraries (where they exist) at learning institutions do not have the equipment either. Although there are about 30 computer schools and institutes in the country, they only serve to introduce students to the technology rather than specialization or computer engineer training. A special bureau established to promote use of computers, established by the government, only carries out administrative tasks and has not yet taken any concrete actions.
Cuts in electricity in Benin can last from several minutes up to several days; they are especially frequent during rainy periods, which total six months of the year. The damage to computers often caused by power cuts is not covered by the Société Béninoise d’Electricité or insurance companies, despite promises to the contrary. At the Centre SYFED/REFER at the university campus at Abomey-Calavi, among other public access points, these persistent problems have discouraged frequent use of the technology despite the initial enthusiasm of students and staff.
The government, which has not developed a policy to promote new communication technologies, has given low priority to ICTs when faced with more pressing emergencies and priorities such as structural adjustment and the fight against poverty. Because of chronic economic problems, only development cooperation programmes that help bring in needed capital and investment are favoured.
In addition to illiteracy in the country—about 70% of the population—English (the language of choice on the Internet) is not widely spoken. More traditional media such as newspapers and radio continue to dominate, and advantages offered by the Internet such as databanks are hardly used; more than 75% of information that circulates between institutions in the country is in printed form.
In Benin the Internet presents many potential opportunities that could contribute to economic and social development. These include in the fields of health, education and research, production of local content available on the web, reinforcement of South-South cooperation, more efficiency and lower communication costs.
Despite growing use of the Internet in urban areas, the technology has yet to be widely used or appreciated for its many advantages. As discussed earlier it is used mostly by a small minority to communicate internationally while use in medical, scientific and higher learning institutions remains low. For these reasons it is difficult to measure for the moment any important impact of the technology on development in Benin.
If we look beyond the statistics on computer use and the growing number of projects aimed at promoting the use of information technology in Benin, the reality is that use is limited and constrained by many international, national and local barriers. But a certain number of contradictions are obvious. Even though the Internet has the potential to contribute to the modernization of Benin, right now it is prohibitively expensive technology for a poor country. In addition to the small number of users in Benin, the applications currently used don’t directly coincide with the objectives of economic and social development.
In such a context there is no room for naïve or idealistic expectations that the Internet will solve Benin’s problems. On the other hand a realistic and pragmatic approach should be based on real opportunities presented by the Internet, its valid uses, and an acknowledgement of the national context and local needs. Such an approach allows for developing concrete ideas regarding how the Internet can serve to contribute to the priorities of people’s well-being and promoting civil society, democracy and development in general. It also implies a constant reevaluation of possibilities for the Internet’s use and innovative applications, and ways of avoiding duplication or wastefulness. Such an approach should help contribute to the transfer of new communication technologies and their positive role in sharing information and promoting economic and social development.
A longer version of this article in French, published in June 1998 by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), is available on website (www.unrisd.org/infotech/publicat/benin1.htm).
Voices from Africa no. 9