14 April 2011

An African connection

I have loved travelling all of my life but I can honestly say that with the exception of wanting to see the Pyramids of Giza and the markets of Morocco, Africa has never hit my travel radar.

John is the Head of Technology Governance for Asia and Africa. It basically means that any technological implementations need to first pass through him for consideration and approval. As John's job entails potential business trips to both Africa and Asia, it is of no surprise that general conversations around technology in Africa have surfaced. These conversations did not only place Africa on my radar but also raised my curiosity about technology in Africa.

When you think of Africa, what comes to mind? Poor, over-populated, technologically backwards, Sahara desert, savannahs, oasis, dare I say warlords? Depending on your experience it could be any one of those things and most possibly others.

Here my focus is on technology. Internet access and mobile phone penetration. Services we consider standard in our society, easy to access and affordable but are a complete challenge to the many poverty stricken Africans.

Take these statistics for instance. Africa has a population of 1 billion people but only 11% of that population is connected to the internet. The connections are largely in South Africa and parts of North Africa. The lack of penetration is quite evident in central Africa and parts of East Africa such as, Ethiopia, Somalia, Niger, Congo to name a few.

Compare that penetration to North America at 77% or Australia at 80%. Could you imagine life without the internet / Facebook / email / sms / Skype / instant messaging? Cause I sure can't. Firstly, I would not even be writing this.

Now don't get me wrong. Just because many parts of Africa are poor or technologically immature, it does not mean they are not hankering for high-speed broadband access. Consider this: Australian user growth from 2000 to 2010 was 180%, whereas Africa was 2,357%. There is no doubt about the desire for internet access. The sad part is that much of the infrastructure is internationally owned, thereby making access quite expensive to the locals (who are often charged by the minute on dial-up internet) and inaccessible to the lower socio-economic group.

Imagine the jobs information technology could create. First world countries export call centre services to India and manufacturing to China because it is cheaper, imagine what it can do for the Africans. All of sudden it could open possibilities for Africans to work for international companies without ever leaving their home town. Bonus for the companies as they open up a new labour market and bonus for the Africans who can now earn a better living to look after their families.

Unfortunately, laying optical fibres continentally wide is hampered by poor infrastructure and the cost of installation (and the occasional leader who doesn't want his people to have access to free information. Imagine that they should get any ideas about freedom). Some of the north African countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria have been successfully cabled by one of the longest submarine optical fibres reaching a "mere" 38,624km in length and connecting 4 continents. South Africa is connected via a 28,000km cabling system that runs from Malaysia to India via Sth Africa & parts of Western Africa through to Spain & Portugal.

Whilst East Africa is not connected at this stage, plans are underway by various telco consortiums. Should these plans come to fruition, Africa will have a ring of submarine cables connecting most of the coastal countries.

However, how will the land-locked countries benefit from these cables, what kind of infrastructure will it require, will they have the funds to initiate cable installation programs? Some of the countries are already doing the best they can by using power grids, railway lines and oil pipelines but the answer on a grander scale remains elusive at this stage, particularly for the sub-Saharan countries.

The effort and interest is definitely there and they are to be commended for those efforts and the desire to bring Africa into the 21st century. Whilst they may have a way to go, it would be curious to see their successes and tribulations in years and decades to come.

What can high-speed fibre optic networks achieve in Africa? To name a few: foreign investment, globalization, digital long distance education, access to current research materials.

So in the meantime Africans without internet access use mobile communication, mobile banking and any other form of mobile data transfer via satellite networks. With mobile capability, telecommunication penetration is at 50% of which only 10% are fixed lines due to its limited availability (basically the same problem as the low uptake on internet usage).

Whilst competition is high in the telco environment and new customers in the lower income group are targeted one of the challenges in keeping prices down is the fact that much of the telecommunication infrastructure is again owned by international companies. This means that a call from one African country to another African country is re-routed via Europe or the US thereby making the call more expensive than if the individual made a direct international call. Without increased African ownership of telco infrastructure, these high expenses will continue into the future.

Nevertheless, Africans are amazingly resourceful. Whilst they often can't rely on internet access, because it is either unavailable or too expensive, they use their mobile phones to do what we would do via internet. Their technology solutions ensures that it can cater even to the lowest socio-economic group in order to give their old handsets the capability to perform what we do on our broadband or multi-function phones, even if that means travelling from their village into the local town to get signal.

So the next time you are frustrated with your broadband, ADSL, mobile, iPhone, iPad and particularly the service providers, spare a thought to the African continent and the long journey ahead of them.


Acknowledgement: Much of the information was sourced from the "Developing a Fibre Optic Backbone in Africa" report, authored by Jabulani Dhliwayo of the NEPAD Council.

If you are curious enough about the sea cabling network worldwide check out this image: Internet's Undersea World.  It consists of a phenomenal 153,000kms of cabling throughout the world.