Broadband internet access can help Africa leapfrog its development challenges and catch up with the rest of the world, seven presidents from the continent said Tuesday at the Transform Africa Summit in Kigali, Rwanda.
President Paul Kagame hosted colleagues from Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan, Gabon, Burkina Faso and Mali to review progress made in increasing internet access and using information communication technology on the continent.
The host President had plenty to show off to his colleagues and to participants drawn from across the world; Rwanda has just launched super-fast 4G LTE internet access, rolled out public Wi-Fi in parts of the capital Kigali, laid thousands of kilometres of fibre-optic cable, and has internet connections as standard requirements for new buildings.
Africa has made progress. In 2000 there were more fixed-line telephones in Manhattan, New York, than in the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa. And in 2006 only two out of every 100 telephone lines in the world were found in Africa. The proliferation of mobile telephony has given many Africans access to communication and helped them leapfrog the technological divide.
Still there is little to telephone home about. President Salva Kiir told the Transform Africa that South Sudan, which only became an independent state two years ago, has four licensed telecommunications companies but less than half the population has access to a mobile phone.
The South Sudan leader revealed plans to develop a fibre-optic cable to link the country to the regional network that runs to the undersea cables anchored at Mombasa on the East African seaboard.
Belie a reality
Overall access to broadband internet has grown in recent years, especially after the completion of the sub-marine cables on the East African coast but it remains significantly below world averages, with less than two in 10 Africans enjoying regular and reliable access to the internet.
By December 2012 that figure was 15.6 per cent, according to ITU, majority of whom accessed the internet through their mobile phones. By the same there were 51 million Facebook subscribers, a 4.8 per cent penetration rate.
The figures belie another reality; a divide within the divide, with most telephony internet access concentrated on the outer margins of the continent, in particular north and southern Africa.
Participants at the summit organised by Rwanda together with the International Telecommunications Union heard that African governments must prioritise investment into ICT infrastructure.
“The railway lines, the sea lines of yesterday are broadband today,” Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta said, adding that technology offers Africa a “great opportunity” to leapfrog the gulf with the developed world as well as its own internal divisions.
ICT breaks all barriers of tribe, wealth and helps integrate the continent faster, Mr Kenyatta said. “It is not a luxury good; it is an instrument for transformation.”
President Museveni acknowledged the importance of ICT but noted that it must be tailored to solving problems on the continent. “ICT must help agriculture, industry and services,” he said.
African governments can increase GDP by as much as $235 billion over 10 years if they allocate more spectrums towards mobile broadband, according to a report from the Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA).
The same report argued that increasing access to broadband through mobile phones could potentially create more than 20 million jobs in sub-Saharan Africa and lift 40 million people out of poverty by 2025.
The Transform Africa Summit has set itself ambitious targets to put ICT at the centre of social-economic development, improve access to broadband internet, use technology to make governance more transparent and accountable to citizens, and build partnerships between private firms and governments.
Participants hope to monitor progress through the Smart Africa Alliance, a partnership between participating African states, the Africa Development Bank, the World Bank, the ITU, and the private sector, and hope to recommend its adoption at the next African Union Summit.