Thursday, January 09, 2014

ICT gives hope to African Entrepreneurs

By Firdausy Haruna, Mayowa Sanyaolu, and Funke Ajetunmobi

What is ICT?
Information and Communications Technology or (ICT), is often used as an extended synonym for information technology (IT), but is a more specific term that stresses the role of unified communications and the integration of telecommunications (telephone lines and wireless signals), computers as well as necessary enterprise software, middleware, storage, and audio-visual systems, which enable users to access, store, transmit, and manipulate information.

The term ICT is now also used to refer to the convergence of audio-visual and telephone networks with computer networks through a single cabling or link system. There are large economic incentives (huge cost savings due to elimination of the telephone network) to merge the audio-visual, building management and telephone network with the computer network system using a single unified system of cabling, signal distribution and management.

ICT and Internet Usage in Africa
The ICT sector has been the major economic driver in Sub-Saharan Africa over the past decade, witnessing an annual compounded growth rate of 40%.  Never before in the history of the continent has the population been as connected as it is today, yet this strong ICT growth trajectory is expected to continue, as penetration rates are still relatively low.

A key indicator in determining access and usage is the price of service, such as for voice and
data. Pricing of voice services in many African countries has become competitive and in line
with the rest of the world, while broadband costs continue to be a mixed bag.  However, when differences in GDP are taken into account as compared to global benchmarks, we in Africa still pay more on a GDP basis due to the lower GDP base.

Notably, the story of mobile penetration across the continent is far better than the Internet. Overall, 45% of African residents have a mobile subscription; this is more than four times the penetration of the Internet.

Internet penetration is dominated by the traditional economic successes in Africa. Countries like Egypt and South Africa have a very high proportion of internet users.  Kenya has also invested heavily in an usable infrastructure.  However the largest by far is that of Nigeria where at least a proportion of the massive oil revenues has been utilized to improve internet availability.
These countries alone have well over 50% of the internet users in Africa, while places like the Congo or Ethiopia have a depressingly small amount of internet users.

The potential for outsourcing
In the world economy at the moment, one of the few growth areas is the ICT sector. It is estimated that in the USA over the next 20 years there will be a shortfall of millions to fill vacancies in the IT and ITC sectors. It is thus essential that other countries take up the slack.

India and China have been very successful in attracting ICT contracts from Europe and America. It is now the time for Africa to seize these new business opportunities.

Africa is well positioned to gain a growing income from Business Process Outsourcing. Not only does it have the internet infrastructure in place but it also has the language abilities. There is a vast pool of Africans who claim English, French and Portuguese as their second language. There is also a sizeable community of Mandarin speakers in Africa. These language skills will prove to be decisive in the future for African BPO prospects.

Undersea cable projects like SEACOM (Kenya) and Main One (Nigeria) are building more fiber optic lines to connect Africa to the rest of the world.  At the same time there has been an upsurge in mobile phone and mobile device use in Africa. There are now in place several companies providing e-banking, e-commerce, e-learning, e-democracy and e-agriculture.

Another encouraging sign for the African ICT scene is the growing number of computer manufacturers in Africa. An increasing number of African countries make computers, software and other applications for mobiles. The image of a hopelessly poor and lagging continent will change as Africa begins to grab more of the global ICT business opportunities.

In terms of education, ambitious plans are underway to provide all school children with a laptop. This can be achieved by cloud technology that allows computers to be built cheaply that still perform complex and memory heavy tasks by using the ability to store data on the cloud. It is certain that future generations of Africans will be even more computer literate.

The rise of censorship
In Malawi, the EBill is the piece of legislation that enables the goverment to control access to the internet by individuals. In true Big Brother style, the state is appointing cyber- inspectors to monitor and inspect online activities.  Move over to Zambia and its a similar story, again using the pretext of blocking hate speech, although this is normally considered to be restricted to that speech directed at the rulers of the country. It is a very big job especially now with the introduction of cheaper smart mobile phones with internet capability. Africans love their phones and for many its their first experience of the internet in their daily lives.

Where there has been censorship, there has been a huge increase in the amount of security-enabled programs being used in these countries to bypass and protect the monitoring. However its also entertainment that is encouraging the use of proxies and VPNs to be used. For example a UK based VPN or proxy server can allow the user to watch British TV from a phone, laptop or mobile device. The cost is fairly low for these services although still expensive for most Africans.

The Internet Gives Hope to African Entrepreneurs
It is not easy starting up a business in Africa, but hopefully the internet will start to make that easier. One of the biggest problems in Africa is the lack of infrastructure both physical and intellectual.  

In brief, some of the key benefits of ICT in Africa over the years include:
·        New job opportunities
·        Improved communication systems
·        Increased market connectivity, particularly with mobile technologies

Some of the major challenges in ICT’s development in Africa are:
·        Inadequate electric power
·        Unevenly distributed internet access, including last-mile issues
·        Shortage of skilled, qualified ICT personnel
-         Weak or backward university curriculum
·        Funding/sponsorship gaps requiring urgent attention

Finally, some key actions that would develop ICT in Africa include:
·        Reducing the cost of access for mobile and broadband
-         Improving the regulatory and competitive environments for operators
-         Better coordination in developing the infrastructure
-         Resolve spectrum constraints to free up access for additional players
-         Government commitment to increasing ICT access
-         Lower taxation of ICT equipment
·        Collaboration by key stakeholders, including government, private-sector and universities
·        Training and capacity-building

Based on the February 2012 ICT Competitiveness in Africa report by Javier Ewing, Nicolas Chevrollier, Maryanna Quigless, Thomas Verghese, and Matthijs Leenderste.
The three authors are students in Telecommunications Engineering at Bells University of Technology, Ogun State.  They prepared this paper under my supervision for the course CEN 302: Introduction to ICT. 

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