Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Poverty & SDGs

EAST AFRICA: Tackling the Digital Divide From a Regional Perspective

Joyce Mulama

NAIROBI, Apr 21 2007 (IPS) - The digital divide between urban and rural areas in East Africa – and between rich and poor – continues to loom large, highlighting the need for initiatives that will enable all to benefit from information and communication technologies (ICTs).

“Even as we respond to the challenges brought about by the ICT revolution, let us remain sensitive to the implications of multiple disparities between the rich and the poor (and) between the rural and urban populations,” John Waweru, director general of the Communications Commission of Kenya, noted earlier this month at a meeting held under the auspices of the East African Regulators, Postal and Telecommunications Organisations. The gathering was a first step towards harmonising ICT policies in the region to ensure growth in the use of new technologies.

Just a fifth of the Kenyan population – seven million out of 34 million – has access to fixed and mobile telephone lines; most of these users are in towns and cities, according to Waweru.

The situation parallels that in neighbouring Tanzania, where about seven million of the country’s 35 million citizens have fixed and mobile lines – again, mostly in urban areas, said John Nkoma, director general of the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority. (More positively, Nkoma noted in an interview with IPS that about three years ago, the number of users was put at just two million.)

Similarly, studies by the World Bank have indicated that over 50 percent of ICT services in Africa are concentrated in urban areas, even though these are home to less than 30 percent of the continent’s people.

Uganda points to how things can be done differently.

An ICT fund set up four years ago in this country has helped establish internet cafes and telephone, postal and courier facilities in rural areas. The Rural Communications Development Fund provides grants for companies to set up ICT facilities in even the remotest parts to ensure wide access to information technologies.

“We expect every primary school to have internet access by 2010. We are now putting up a pay phone service at every parish,” Patrick Masambu, executive director of the Uganda Communications Commission, told IPS.

The fund is held up as an example of best practice for enabling poor and rural communities in Africa to make use of ICTs. A similar project is now being considered for Kenya.

While such initiatives are welcome, they are not the only way to attract investors to rural settings. The International Development Research Centre, a Canadian governmental body, says market liberalisation also has a role to play. In addition, infrastructure has to be brought up to par.

“We have to improve our infrastructure; rural electrification is key,” Chali Tumelo, a senior advisor to the International Telecommunication Union, told IPS. In Kenya, 85 percent of the population lacks access to electricity, according to government figures.

Having all the elements are in place, however – community ICT services, the electricity to power them – may not suffice.

“If people have to reach rural and remote areas, they must bear in mind that most of these people may not understand ICT instructions, which are mostly in English. There is a need for this information to be prepared in local languages or a regional one which can be easily understood,” noted Tumelo.

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