Interesting times in ICTs

Hansjörg Neun

This 50th issue of ICT Update magazine comes at a time of many interesting developments. On 23 July 2009, broadband internet access was brought East Africa thanks to the Seacom undersea cable which now links Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa to high speed networks in Europe and India. By 2010, 21 countries in the East Africa will become connected thanks to the Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System (EASSy). This will have a great impact in a region otherwise dependent on expensive and sometimes unreliable satellite links to the internet. Bandwidth costs will be slashed with cheaper telephony, stimulating businesses and the growth of IT enabled services such as call centres and outsourced industries.

The growth of mobile telephony and related services continues to amaze. Mobile financial services, of the type championed by M-Pesa in Kenya and Wizzit in South Africa, are predicted to be worth US$ 5 billion in 2010. And mobile extension services are starting to enter the mainstream with ventures such as Nokia’s Life Tools and the Grameen Foundation’s AppLab services in Uganda. The fact that rural farmers are now being directly targeted is surely evidence of a sea change in attitudes towards supporting rural communities and of the transformative power of ICTs used for development.

I believe we are currently witnessing ‘technology leapfrogging’ in action where, in spite of a lack of basic infrastructure, the possession of a mobile phone and access to the services it offers are transforming lives. And ICT innovation continues seemingly unchecked, breaking barriers to human knowledge and education, breaking barriers to participation and social inclusion, breaking barriers to economic opportunity by giving the possibility of equitable benefits for all.

The information tsunami unleashed by Google, blogs, wikis, Twitter and a host of other social media have, in a remarkably short time, profoundly changed the way we access and share information. For an increasing proportion of the world’s population, these on-line resources are becoming indispensable to their daily lives.


In the area of participation, web tools and services (especially social media) have led to an increasingly animated public sphere. For civil society organizations, the internet and mobile telephony have offered a new medium of political mobilization and participation. And we only have to think of the key role that social media played in the 2008 US Presidential elections, and the role of Twitter in the recent Iranian elections, to realize that times have indeed changed.

Meanwhile, the development of e-services offers an increasing number of opportunities to improve the economy of rural communities significantly. The unstoppable proliferation of mobile phones has been fundamental to this growth in services. Another other key factor is the favourable technical environment which has led to increased power, diversity, affordability and availability of devices. This, together with the spread of web 2.0 tools and applications, has provided the opportunity for greater efficiency and effectiveness in organizations working for agricultural and rural development throughout the world.

These are indeed exciting times to be working with ICTs for development, with no shortage of devices, applications and tools to use and many possibilities to move seamlessly from an online to an offline world. Given this abundance of riches, it becomes ever more urgent that we work more closely together and share experiences, exploiting ICTs to tackle the pressing issues of the day especially the effects of climate change on food security and agriculture.

A financial analyst in Nairobi, Aly-Khan Satchu, commenting on recent developments was reported as saying ‘with the arrival of the mobile phone and now broadband internet, we are leaping from the medieval age connectivity-wise into the 21st century in a very short period of time. This represents an enormous economic boost and a political game changer given how information is now going to be spread.’ This is indeed a significant economic opportunity which will lead to a flourishing environment in which inevitably there will be many winners as well as losers.

I believe the developments that I have touched on do represent a great opportunity for improving rural livelihoods and greater participation in the social and political sphere. From an ICT for development perspective, it is important that these benefits are shared equitably to avoid digital exclusion and a situation of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. New technologies are often seen as disruptive and do alter the status quo (witness the turmoil in the publishing and media industries in coming to terms with the new landscape). However, it is not a blank slate where we have to start from scratch and rewrite the rule book.

Taking a ‘people first’ approach, by concentrating on capacity building and education, ensuring appropriate regulation and ethical practices and dealing with infrastructural issues as they relate to rural communities, the benefits of the new technologies can be available to all. ICT Update contributes to this process. Over the last 50 issues, it has chronicled the development and growth of ICTs in ACP countries and their use and adaptation at the local level when used in agricultural and rural development. While the future might be uncertain, the opportunities are great and ICTs will continue developing at an incredible rate. ICT Update will certainly continue for another 50, 100 or more issues – who knows? We have just to ensure that it is for the benefit of agriculture and the rural poor.


Dr Hansjörg Neun is director of the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation

06 August 2009

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