‘The job of developing rural ICT policy in Africa is too important, too urgent and too big to be left to governments.’ Edmund Katiti, NEPAD e-Africa Programme.
It is widely accepted today that ICTs drive economic growth and social development. How much ICTs will benefit people in ACP countries, especially the rural majority, will largely depend on the policies and strategies that governments put in place to promote the planned and orderly deployment of communications technologies.
The introduction of ICTs into Africa, especially, is like building a pyramid from the top. Products and services are first introduced into the urban centres and later spread into peri-urban, and eventually into rural areas. The ICT development challenge for Africa is how quickly we can spread planned and coordinated ICT services to the bottom of the pyramid – the rural areas – where the majority live, and where the hope for the greatest impact lies.
The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) e-Africa Programme is now facing the huge task of tackling the bottom of the pyramid. This task is too important, too urgent and too big to be left to governments. The public and private sectors have to work with non-governmental organisations and development partners to realise the promise of ICT.
The NEPAD e-Africa Programme is responsible for developing policies, strategies and programmes at the continental level. We see ICTs as standing on three pillars: secure broadband infrastructure reaching all parts of the continent, e-skills among the general populace, and e-applications and e-services. The three pillars are addressed in three major programme areas.
The AU-NEPAD ICT Broadband Infrastructure Programme aims to connect African countries to each other by a broadband terrestrial network, which is connected to the rest of the world by submarine cables. Such a cross-border network, jointly owned by African public and private companies, will reduce Africa’s over-reliance on foreign-owned satellites. The attendant high transit charges are payable only in scarce foreign currencies, and result in an excessive loss of capital from the continent. The infrastructure programme has created an environment in which a continental cross-border network can be owned, developed, operated and maintained.
The e-skills component is centred around the AU-NEPAD e-Schools Initiative, which targets African youth and aims to harness ICT technology to improve the quality of teaching and learning in African schools. Young Africans graduating from such ICT-enabled schools will have the skills to participate in the global information society and knowledge economy. The programme started with a demonstration phase that had several components running in parallel: teacher training, content development, satellite connectivity, pilot implementation and development of a business plan on which to base the expansion of the programme.
The private sector played an important role by providing, deploying and operating ICT-based education and health projects in the nearly 100 mainly rural schools in 16 countries. The NEPAD e-Schools Business Plan, funded by the South African government, was built on the lessons learned in the demo phase, and provided valuable information on actions, including funding, that are required to ensure the success of e-Schools on a large scale.
The AU-NEPAD e-Applications Programme supports the structured and coordinated development and deployment of e-applications and e-services in government, health, tourism, banking and agriculture. There are special programmes in the areas of internet governance and cyber security, and community informatics.
It is the e-government programme in particular that will strengthen good governance practices in Africa by promoting the use of technology at the national, provincial, local and municipal levels. The programme will create platforms to promote the provision of efficient, transparent, equitable, streamlined, consistent and easier access to services by African citizens.
The AU-NEPAD Community Informatics Programme links all those working with ICTs for development in grassroots communities in Africa. These include NGOs, private sector suppliers, universities, researchers and government officials. The network will be a practical and on-going extension of NEPAD’s work in ICT development, where a multi-sectoral approach can support individual ICT-enabled developments at the local level.
The network will provide the space for discussion, collaboration and research among the various participants on issues pertaining to ICT development in Africa. This programme is expected to enhance policy development, collaborative research partnerships and initiatives in ICT4D.
By providing support at each of these levels, NEPAD and our partners intend to develop skills and infrastructure that will bring technology to all parts of the continent. Africa has an opportunity to learn from experiences of other regions, such as India, where ICT has arrived at the bottom of the pyramid and is now transforming the lives of the rural poor.