Information and telecommunication technologies in Africa: a potential Revolution?

Technologies de l'information et des télécommunications en Afrique : une possible révolution ?
Article Index
The growing African connectivity
African Internet Infrastructure

Africa represents the world's greatest information and communication technology (ICT) challenge. It has the lowest telephone density in the world and the lowest level of Internet connectivity. The number of Internet users in Africa is still low, and tariffs remain high compared to penetration rates and costs in the rest of the world (Akue-Kpakpo, 2013).

Nevertheless, ICT has met an unexpected level of success in Africa. Several analyses highlight the technologies' macroeconomic impacts and their transformative effects on societies and economies, particularly in banking, healthcare and agriculture. Public officials, development practitioners, social activists and businessmen see Africa as a new frontier where ICT will drive a transformation of African economies and societies. Some promote the so-called ICT revolution, extolling its potential to increase civic and market participation, productivity, competencies and transparency. What are the hopes and challenges of this ICT revolution in Africa? Are African populations and economies adopting and appropriating the technology? Might ICT create a real revolution or simply an evolution with some leap-frogging effects?

This paper examines the way that the international community and companies have invested substantial political and economic resources in reforms and infrastructure to promote access and open telecommunications markets across the continent. We review the extent and value of these investments. Using Rwanda as an example, we show how ICT infrastructure investments can combine with robust public policies to promote education access and economic growth. We conclude by analysing the enormous potential for online education to further transform African economies and societies.

Support for ICT in Africa by international organizations and companies

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, transnational organizations such as the World Bank, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the UN acted as proponents and conduits for policies to install and expand ICT on the African continent. They encouraged free-market reforms of the African telecommunications market and shored up ICT infrastructure. In addition, multi-stakeholder collaboration between various African states, international non-governmental organizations and indigenous community-based organizations pushed for universal access to the Internet and telephony as development and social justice tools.

Universal access is an idea promulgated in the United States during the mid-1900s to extend landline telephones to every part of the nation.

This donor funding for infrastructure, community support, market liberalization and the promise of large domestic markets lured private sector telecommunications companies into the region, further expanding ICT investment.

Over the 1990s and into the new millennium, scholars and donors expanded the notion of universal service, arguing that national governments should play a role in creating an environment which fosters technology (Woherem, 1993). Some observed that 'Consensus is building on the importance of Internet usage as a catalyst for international development' (Dzidonu, 2002). Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan espoused policymakers' belief that ICT could help Africa modernize while allowing developing countries to pursue social welfare goals.

Annan, K., 2002, 'ICT: A Priority for Africa's Development.' Press Release. SG/SM/8496 AFR/516. Geneva: United Nations.

The African Information Society Initiative (AISI) was launched concurrently with the rise of ICT as a social goal in 1996. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), which is a donor body, ensured that AISI was adopted by the Organisation for African Unity's (OAU) Heads of State Summit in Yaoundé, Cameroon in 1996. AISI supported the efforts of 28 African countries to develop ICT policies, which UNECA calls 'national information and communication infrastructure' policies.

African domestic activists participated together with global activists in internationally sponsored forums such as the World Summit for Information Society, organized by the International Telecommunications Union, a subsection of the UN. The General Assembly of the UN endorsed the World Summit on the Information Society in 2001. Civil society members, private sector organizations, governments, UN organizations and other donors all participated. Social activists observing the emergence of the new set of technologies recognized ICT as a potential economic and political resource, and importantly, one that acts as a vehicle to discuss long held social justice objectives such as combating poverty, empowering women and improving education and health care in a modern context. These activists followed the lead of domestic actors in the United States and set about creating a discourse that emphasized the need to distribute that resource equitably. These international activists presented ICT as a development tool for disadvantaged rural areas. Private sector companies saw that these reforms and policies presented opportunities to establish large cable companies and telecommunications groups on the continent.

Investments in ICT infrastructure in Africa

According to the ITU, the Internet arrived in sub-Saharan Africa in the early 1990s, in Kenya in 1993 and Nigeria in 1995. Since 2000, Africa has posted the highest rates of growth - up to 44% per year - in the worldwide mobile telephony market (Deloitte, 2012). However, overall penetration of both Internet and telephony is much lower than in either lower middle income countries or higher income countries (Chabossou, Stork, and Zahonogo, 2009). In 2012, Internet penetration in Africa stood at about 15.6% while the rest of the globe reported rates closer to 40.0%.

Internet World Stats, at

Most countries remain far from reaching the goal of universal access, not least because household and business Internet connections in sub-Saharan Africa are more expensive than anywhere else in the world (Akue-Kpakpo, 2013).

Nonetheless, significant progress has been made in terms of shoring up ICT infrastructure in Africa over the past decade. As recently as 2009, submarine cables did not surround the entire continent, making high-speed Internet and data largely unavailable and prohibitively expensive for East Africa. In 2010, the Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System (EASSy), a $265 million, 10,000 mile undersea fibre optic cable system partially funded by the World Bank, the African Development Bank and other donors, connected countries in Eastern Africa to the rest of the world (Akue-Kpakpo, 2013). In addition, private sector telecommunications companies based in South Africa, including Vodacom and MTN played a key role in expanding infrastructure and services. Meanwhile, two other African cable operators, TEAMS and SEACOM, largely closed the Internet connection gap for other regions. SEACOM spans 13,700 kilometres; built by a consortium including the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, it was completed at a cost of approximately $650 million. TEAMS (the East African Marine System), which spans 4,500km and cost $130 million to build, is mainly owned by Kenyan stakeholders, including state-owned Telkom Kenya, as well as Etisalat of the United Arab Emirates (NPAD, 2014).

In addition to dramatic improvements in cable Internet links between the African continent and Europe, which have led to reduced cost and dramatically increased transmission speed, another key area of growth in African ICTs has been the boom in cellular telephony on the continent (ITU, 2013). Mobile telephony services now cover most of the population of sub-Saharan Africa. Telecom network operators in five key sub-Saharan markets (Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa, Kenya and Ghana) have invested $16.5 billion since 2008 (Deloitte, 2012). Indeed, these operators are key providers of all forms of ICT, including telephony, Internet, and data services - more so in Africa than in any part of the world.

Public policies drive ICT infrastructure and adoption: the case of Rwanda

In addition to garnering funding for network infrastructure, some African countries have aggressively promoted ICT through public policies. One strong example of this is the country of Rwanda: it has aggressively promoted ICT's role as a socio-economic driver. Nearly two decades after the genocide, Rwanda still has crushing social and economic problems. In 2008, Rwanda ranked among the world's least developed countries; approximately 60% of Rwandans earned less than a dollar a day and the Human Development Index ranked Rwanda 161st out of 177 countries. Life expectancy at birth was only 45 years. Now, Rwanda's predominately rural population is set to double by 2030.

Against this background, ICT for development represents a crucial ingredient for Rwanda to transform itself from an agricultural third-world country into a technologically-driven second-world country. In 2008, the government of Rwanda, led by President Paul Kagame, made a commitment to strengthening the national ICT network; since then it has significantly invested in placing ICTs in schools, hospitals and public offices. Kagame announced his aim to 'use the power of science and technology to transform' Rwandan society (Kagame, 2008). He sought rhetorical inspiration from the United States, and promised to leverage science and education to permit 'a more rapid socioeconomic transformation' and help the country make better development choices. Enormous support from the outside world for this vision translated into significant resources from donors.

Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front government believes that ICTs offer Rwanda the opportunity to 'leap-frog the key stages of industrialization and transform her subsistence agriculture dominated economy into a service-sector driven, high value-added information and knowledge economy that can compete on the global market'. Kagame asserts that 'Rwanda is at risk of being...marginalized if she fails to embrace these technologies to transform her economy and society'. He believes the potential of ICT can help achieve the 'vision of a modern economy for Rwanda'. Albert Butare, Rwanda's Minister of State for Energy and Communications, seconds Kagame, calling ICT 'an indispensable tool for...modernization'.

The centrepiece of the Rwandan government's effort to distribute ICT to the Rwandan population lies in education. Education is one of the eight pillars in the nation's ICT policy. Education-related ICT projects are wide-ranging, from training teachers to rolling out computers, installing Internet connectivity and pursuing monitoring and evaluation, writing content in Kinyarwanda (a dialect) to digitizing mathematics, biology, chemistry, and physics curricula. Rwanda provides primary school and the first three years of secondary school to students for free.

The government places especially strong emphasis on science and technology in education. As of 2008, government spending to promote science reached 1.6% of its gross domestic product. In the words of the director of planning for the Rwandan Ministry of Education, 'We want to use ICTs for education. We want a skilled workforce.'

Interview with Karangwa and Claver, 13 August 2007.

One of the government's key goals is to deploy the technological resources needed to implement educational reform and ICT initiatives. A specific objective is to 'transform Rwanda into an IT literate nation', and improve the educational system over a ten-year period. As part of the process of attaining digital literacy, the government initiated a comprehensive programme to deploy and 'exploit' computers in schools.

Starting in 2006, this effort included the placement of computers in public and private schools; the objective was to give every school an identical number of computers regardless of school size or location. Primary schools received one laptop each, while secondary schools were slated to receive ten laptops each. In addition, each of Rwanda's 30 districts was to receive precisely one telecentre. Further efforts included bringing the Internet to elementary school children, attempts to put a computer science curriculum in place, and training thousands of teachers in basic computer literacy, in cooperation with Microsoft.

The impact of ICT on African economies has often been described using well-known examples, such as mobile phone banking in Kenya (Obulutsa, 2005) or Ugandan farmers' use of mobile phones to connect with suppliers and markets. Such usages hold enormous potential and have clearly been appropriated by their users.

We present here a less well-known example of an ICT application that holds huge potential to transform Africa: online education or e-learning. As African countries invest in infrastructure and move towards a greater uptake of ICT, we may see the adoption of online education for the masses - for schoolchildren and teachers, and also parents and the business community. Countries such as Rwanda may be able to draw on experiments currently being conducted in other countries, such as the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) made famous by Stanford and Harvard Universities in the United States, or the France Digital University (France Université Numérique - FUN) launched by the French Ministry of Higher Education and Research at the end of 2013. The potential extent of MOOCs in terms of their adoption and appropriation remains controversial.

Some insight can be gained through the analysis ofng more traditional e-learning projects focused on a close tutoring of the students. The e-Dev project promoted by the French Development Agency was launched that has taken place in six African countries in 2013: Algeria, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia.

In these countries, AFD is building on the French government's own 2013 launch of a MOOC platform known as FUN (France Université Numérique), together with CEFEB, and the francophone university agency, AUF.

While it is too early to fully appreciate the full extent of the project's impact, it presents both positive and negative lessons for those who wish to emulate the online education concept.

In terms of positive points, online learning does present the capacity to disseminate knowledge more widely to those located far from traditional bricks-and-mortar academic centres or those who could not otherwise attend courses. However, online learning requires a rethinking of pedagogical content, and improvements to it, to avoid or reduce dropout rates, which often prove high. Obviously, more interactivity between learner and teacher and/or peers is necessary to maintain the former's attention. Online learning may also create innovative, more horizontal relationships between teachers and learners, and between peers who contribute to each other's learning. It also allows for better monitoring of the student's learning experience - some might say it enables spying on students - by analysing data related to the time the learner spends online, the content consulted, tests taken and so forth. While many for-profit online courses have yet to make a profit, online learning does cost less in terms of logistics for buildings, transportation and other infrastructure. As a bonus, it may reduce carbon emissions, at least those tied to transportation, if not those related to generating electricity to run the online networks and computers.

These positive points may be countered by some technical, organizational and economic pitfalls. The primary one lies in the digital divide: the learner needs access not only to a digital device and the Internet, but also to high-speed Internet for bandwidth-heavy content such as videos or animations. These applications run up against connectivity problems in countries such as Chad or Congo. Online learning also requires more 'mental bandwidth' from teachers, who must learn how to use new technologies and how to teach with them. Traditional teaching practices need to be updated, an effort that may find resistance among some teachers and experts. Online learning also requires new standards to measure the efficacy of digital versus traditional learning methods. In some cases, the optimal solution may be a combination of online courses with face-to-face education. Some instructors suggest the 'flipped classroom' (Mazur, 1997) is the best way forward. In their view, the flipped classroom model allows students to learn by watching video lectures online, usually at home, and doing what used to be homework in the classroom, with more guidance from the teacher and helpful peer participation. Last but certainly not least, online education requires a large upfront investment in producing the courses. Generally speaking, online courses with little to no video or animation cost about €3,500 to €5,000 per hour to produce, while highly animated courses may reach €10,000 to €20,000 per hour. The substantial production and delivery costs may deter some countries or schools from pursuing online education projects. This is even more true for the original American MOOC model, which so far has been based on free access to courses. Given the already large investments required for networks, software, hardware and power, access to education via online courses may expand in Rwanda, for instance, but it may no longer be free.

Or, as with previous and current investments in physical ICT infrastructure, Africans may turn to the donor community for funding. Such is the path followed to support the first MOOC designed by Africans for Africans, currently being established by the African Management Initiative (AMI). AMI has already launched Africa's first free online learning platform for managers and entrepreneurs through its Virtual Campus. The organization now aims to deliver free online business and management education to African small business owners and young managers using a hybrid model that combines offline peer-led learning with online coursework. In addition to seeking grant monies, AMI hopes to partner with business schools so it can 'leapfrog traditional bricks-and-mortar training by driving practical, personalized learning and development for African managers and entrepreneurs on an ongoing basis' (Harrison, 2013). As is often the case with new technologies, the positive points appear to outweigh the negative ones, while still demanding a certain leap of faith on the part of funders, governments and the participants themselves that the investment and effort will help them leap-frog from developing nation status to become a more democratic emerging power.


Technical, social, economic and political considerations interpenetrate and overlap in the arena of deploying ICT for development. Ensuring ICT access for all Africans presents a challenge: it is not just a matter of buying computers and placing them in telecentres and schools in rural towns. Rather, spreading ICT throughout Africa presents a complex set of inter-related problems. It requires the building of the physical, regulatory, political, commercial and social infrastructure needed to capitalize on technology's promise of revolution, and it must rely on the ability of citizens to use the technology to advance democracy, participation, competency and transparency.

The growing African connectivity

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African Internet Infrastructure

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