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The internet will set you free

James Hall

Africa's editors are today communicating more and more through the internet, forming members-only chatrooms to exchange thoughts on the issues that confront the continent. But while such an exchange is welcome, the editors are worried that their privileged access to the internet may distance them from the vast majority of Africans.

Africa’s editors are today communicating more and more through the internet, forming members-only chatrooms to exchange thoughts on the issues that confront the continent.

But while such an exchange is welcome, the editors are worried that their privileged access to the internet may distance them from the vast majority of Africans who because of poverty are excluded from the information revolution.

“On one hand, we fear we are talking to ourselves over the heads of the people. But this has always been the intellectual’s concern. On a positive note, we believe that every so often our Internet chatter yields some concrete action,” said Mulinde Musoke, business editor for The New Vision, Uganda’s leading daily newspaper.

Writing from Nairobi, Kenya, on a members-only chat room for African editors, Musyoka wa Kyendo remarked to his colleagues: “At least we are now thinking together as journalists, we are opinion shapers in this continent. Africa should stand up and solve her problems. But how?”

“Let’s start with ideological slavery. We talk of trade with the West and say nothing about trade with ourselves. Take for instance telecommunications. Africa spends an estimated $400-million a year paying for intra-Africa telecommunication for

connection through Europe.”

Africa lags far behind the rest of the world in its transition to an information economy, whose means of communication is e-mail and its information source the internet.

Although the continent accounts for around 13% of the world’s population, only 0,6% of internet users worldwide can be found in Africa.

The average teledensity in sub-Saharan Africa—the measure of the number of telephones compared to the number of people—is only 2 lines per 100 inhabitants.

Teledensity is a key indicator of potential internet use, because computers can only be linked to the worldwide web through conventional telephone lines. Wireless technology is still to come even in the developed world.

African editors in their chat room conversations acknowledge that poverty is a main impediment to Internet growth. For example, an editor from Mozambique, which five years ago was the world’s poorest country, reported that there are actually more available phone lines, and thus capacity for internet linkage, than there are customers.

This is a reversal of the situation in virtually all other African countries, where customers desiring phones have to wait months, even years, to be connected.

In Mozambique, with its 10 Internet Service Providers scrambling for a limited number of subscribers, the number of e-mail users is estimated at about 60 000.

But over 50% of those are based in the capital Maputo, leaving analysts to suspect they are either government users, foreigners connected with the multinational corporations headquartered in Maputo, the diplomatic community, or officials with the international aid agencies.

Telecomunicacoes de Mocambique’s annual report indicated that the available capacity in telephone lines last year was 128 000. But the number of subscribers was only 89 500, up from 85 700 the year before, only a four percent increase.

“One of the main reasons for such slow growth is people’s limited purchasing power, especially in the rural areas,” concluded the report.

More than 350-million people, over 50% of Africa’s population, live below the poverty line of one US dollar per day, according to the World Bank. Without purchasing power to invest in telephones, much less computers, schools, libraries and private citizens are in no position to be connected to the world information systems.

Matters are worse in Ethiopia, where 96% of internet subscribers reside in the capital, Addis Ababa. Traditional electronic media have a long way to go, and policy makers would like these to be expanded as a first priority.

Ethiopia’s International Telecommunications Union found 75 000 computers in use nationwide in 2001, but with only 367 000 TV sets also in use. Only 2,8% of Ethiopian households have access to TVs. A 2000 survey found only 18,4% of Ethiopians owned radios, in a continent where radio is the primary source of information for the masses.

“It comes down to priorities. How can we, in good conscience, promote internet usage as the answer to our communications goals when basics like TV and radio are still far beyond the reach of almost all Ethiopians?” said Carol Strandenes, a communications consultant. Several editors see the advantage of the African Information Society Initiative (Aisi) in theory, while remaining sceptical that the project sponsored by the United Nation’s Economic Commission for Africa

can meet ambitious targets to vastly expand the continent’s internet connectivity.

“Information technology is about market-driven forces. We must address poverty, and internet connectivity will then become a reality because people can afford it,” said Martin Dlamini, editor for the Times of Swaziland.

“Aisi is not about technology,” Assefa Admassie, an associate professor at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia told a continent-wide assemblage of Information Communication Technology policy makers in Addis Ababa in May. “It is about giving Africans the means to improve the quality of their lives and fight against poverty.”

“If the rounds of Aisi meetings can lead to Africans enjoying the new information technologies the rest of the world takes for granted, then wonderful. But are technologies enough when a country’s government censors the free flow of information?” fretted an editor from Botswana, a country where freedom of expression is relatively secure.

Bola Olomola, a Nigerian journalist, replied to his colleagues via their chatroom, “Unless a government is willing to confiscate all computers, the genie cannot be put back into the bottle. The internet will grow in Africa.

More people will get more information, all uncensored and beyond government control. The truth will set people free.” - Sapa-IPS

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