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October 19, 2007

The Infrastructure Opportunity

When it comes to propelling Africa into a more prominent role in the global economy, few things are more important than its ability to use the latest communications and networking technologies to reduce the costs of transacting with the rest of the world. Perhaps that’s why whenever the economic development of Africa is being discussed, the conversation invariably turns to infrastructure.

The Economist has done a nice job of statistically summarizing the current Internet infrastructure challenges (or opportunity, depending on your perspective) in Africa.

The Digital Gap
Oct 18th 2007 | NAIROBI
From The Economist print edition
More than a click to put Africa online
When it comes to computing power, the gap between Africa and the broadband world is still a Grand Canyon. Only 4% of Africans have access to the internet. They pay the most in the world, around $250-300 a month, for the slowest connection speeds. E-commerce barely exists. Nigeria's 140m-odd people have but a few hundred decently trafficked websites in their domain. Blogging is a vibrant but peripheral activity.

If sub-Saharan Africa were scaled according to its available internet connectivity, it would be about the size of Ireland. Of its 48 countries, the 28 in central and eastern Africa are connected to the web by only the flimsiest of satellite technology. Apart from the occasional internet hook-up at a diamond mine or UN camp, whole regions of Congo and Sudan, sub-Saharan Africa's two largest countries, have no connection at all. Even countries like Uganda, which are go-ahead about the internet, start from a very low base. Research by Microsoft found only one in 200 Ugandans regularly uses e-mail.

The number is higher in west Africa, where the more robust SAT-3 undersea cable provides for higher speeds and lower costs. The Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System, better known as EASSY, which runs 9,900km (6,152 miles) along the Indian Ocean floor from South Africa to Sudan, is meant to speed up connections in east and central Africa in the next few years but is not yet operating.

African users must also cope with obsolete systems, irregular electricity and a stultifying lack of local content. Interfaces are being written in a number of African languages, but even the clearest instructions in Wolof or Yoruba as to how to use Windows presume a fair degree of literacy. Then there is the high graphical content of the rich world's web: videos and social networking are unworkable in the snail-slow dial-up offered in most African internet cafés.

For more on this, click here.

It may seem a hopeless situation, but it is far from it. Those with knowledge of Africa’s burgeoning wireless industry know the magnitude of opportunity this represents. And when these infrastructure challenges are met, look out. When Africa’s creativity and entrepreneurial talents are unleashed on the wider world, the economic change could be seismic.

In other news, the GIO team is in the process of compiling the many insights from the deep dives held in Nairobi, Dakar, Cape Town, Paris, Lisbon, Atlanta and Beijing. The Africa report will be made available at the GIO web site in early December.

October 19, 2007 in Africa | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack