Bridging the Digital Divide

Africa's Poor Connection

An Abidjan mobile phone booth operator places a call
The manager of a mobile phone stand places a call in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. As early as 2001, there were more than twice as many cell phones than there were landlines in Côte d'Ivoire (Photo: Issouf Sanogo-Pig/AFP-Getty Images).

Explosion, success story, and miracle—these are the kinds of words found in every report in the African media on the boom in the mobile telephone industry in Africa. And they are right: In the past five years, the army of cell-phone users has grown to 28 million. The poles-and-wires telephone network erected over the past 100 years has been far surpassed. And there is no sign this growth will plateau before the end of this decade, if at all.

Egyptian, British, and South African firms are all in business there. But revenues have not kept pace with the rapid growth in subscribers: The profits companies are making per phone user are declining. The competition in the cell-phone business is bitter; Radio France International even speaks of a “brutal battle over Africa.” Although these news reports describe a triumph, they are also revealing a desperate situation. In no other part of the developing world is the gap between Africa south of the Sahara (with the exception of South Africa) and the rest of the world more yawning than in the field of information and communications technology. Closing that gap “is the continent’s last chance to escape from its backwardness,” wrote African Business Magazine earlier this year.

At the United Nations’ summit meeting on information, more technical issues are, from an African point of view, taking priority over Net access per se. And access is very limited on a continent where information is, more than in any other place, hard to come by. As much as cell phones have livened personal and business life here, they do not provide Internet access.

At the end of 2001, 21 million people in Africa were connected to the existing telephone system. But this number is misleading. If we subtract the 16.4 million phone users from the six countries of North Africa, and those in the nation of South Africa, that leaves just 4.6 million connections for the roughly 620 million customers in the other 47 countries on the continent—one-fifth the average in the rest of the Third World. And 50-70 percent of these connections are in big cities, above all in the capital cities, where only a sixth of Africans live.

The reasons for this include distances, which make expanding the wired network both expensive and slow. But in addition, a large share of the population simply cannot afford a telephone connection. In Kenya, for example, the fixed part of a monthly phone bill comes to 12 Swiss francs [US$9], which amounts to almost a sixth of the minimum wage. In Africa south of the Sahara, excluding South Africa, a basic phone connection costs 20 percent of the average per-capita income—compared with 8 percent as a world average, and 1 percent in the industrial nations. In many nations, the state-owned phone companies are cash cows for the government. Kenya’s Telco, for example, was plundered in both 1992 and 1997 by KANU [Kenya’s ruling party until 2002] to pay for campaign costs.

Investments in expanding and maintaining the wired network are therefore limited, even if we ignore the fact that the state companies possess monopolies and behave accordingly. It was only when private competitors entered the cell-phone market in Kenya that the waiting time to have a broken connection fixed went from five or six weeks to just 48 hours.

Only one of every 700 people has Internet access in Africa, versus one of four in Europe. But the creaky wired network is not the only reason. Another reason is lack of electricity and frequent blackouts. In Kenya, only 12 percent of the population has electricity. But above all, only a tiny minority can afford to buy a computer.

At the end of 2001, the number of computers capable of connecting to the Internet in the 47 nations south of the Sahara (excepting South Africa) was estimated at 1.5-2.5 million, which explains why Internet cafes have popped up everywhere in the cities. Average monthly costs for 20 hours of online time are about 90 Swiss francs [$68]—higher than the average monthly wage.

To this we must add the relatively high costs of a telephone connection
in Africa, and the often extremely poor quality of the lines. Only very low connect rates are possible. In our neighborhood in Nairobi, with its notorious phone numbers beginning with “58,” access speeds are 9,600 bytes per second at best, and 4,800 bytes per second during the day, which means surfing the Net is a draining experience.

The World Bank estimates that providing Africa with a fiber-optic network would cost several billion dollars. It is necessary, nevertheless, because it would mean faster access to the global information marketplace. It would also improve telephone communications within Africa. Right now, it is easier to call Honolulu or Zurich from Kenya than to make a call to Tanzania, its southern neighbor.

African nations lack the will to cooperate on continental communications issues. Improvements would certainly strengthen Africa’s position vis-à-vis the industrial world—and they would increase pressure on those repressive governments that for political reasons want to limit access to news.