Africa must overcome a technological divide that separates its impoverished nations from the developed world and ride the global “digital tsunami” to economic growth, experts said on Thursday. While advanced telecommunications systems and the internet are gradually penetrating even the poorest countries on the continent, huge gaps in access costs are keeping even educated Africans from reaping the benefits, they said.
Speaking at Africa’s largest-ever Information and Communication Technology (ICT) conference in Nairobi on Thursday, the experts warned that development would be imperiled without radical revamps to national ICT policies. African countries still spend about 400 million dollars a year to route voice and data traffic from Africa back to Africa through Europe and North America, where such services are a fraction of the cost, they said.
Despite infrastructure improvements, notably in more Africa’s more developed nations, only 2.5 percent of Africans have Internet access compared to 17.8 percent in the rest of the world, they said. And, although the World Bank expects ICT investments in developing countries to reach 100 billion dollars annually over the next five years only about 12 percent of Africa’s 800 millon people own a mobile phone, they said. But even those Africans who now have cell phones, computers and Internet connections may soon see their relatively privileged status disturbed unless urgent efforts are made to bring the continent up to par, they said.
"These users are part of the next generation of Africans who will either benefit from the ‘digital tsunami’ by being prepared to ride it for their betterment, or be engulfed by it if we are unprepared and lagging behind," said conference chairman Jabulani Dhliwayo. US ICT researcher Tyrone Taborn said computer and technological literacy would be key to bridging the digital divide that currently exists, noting that 60 percent of future jobs will require computer skills and network usage.
"We’ve generated awareness and I’m tremendously proud of that," he said. "However, our task is nowhere near complete. We’ve got to inspire a movement." Surveys show that people with computer skills earn 40 percent more than those without them and Taborn, the chairman of the American Career Communications Group, warned the digital divide had racial implications. A recent US government study found that computer use by blacks in the United States lags behind that of whites by more than 14 percent, while Internet use by blacks trails that of whites by nearly 20 percent.
"This divide," he said, "is much bigger in Africa." Kenya’s information minister Mutahi Kagwe, a co-host of the conference sponsored by the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), said governments in Africa had a moral duty to boost ICT in their countries. "African governments should take a key role in ICT development by coming up with comprehensive ICT policies," he said. "I call upon African states to undertake initiatives to increase internet connectivity and save our scarce resources for national development," Kagwe said.