African countries’ ICT policy– going from the blah, blah, blah cycle to getting something done

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In a week in which the heart of South Africa’s ICT industry - Sandton - suffered continuous load-shedding (rolling power cuts for those of you who speak English), no-one doubts that developing a modern ICT-enabled economy in Africa is a challenge. It is easy in these circumstances to respond cynically by asking: Government? What is it good for? But a small number of African Governments have managed to make a difference through facilitating major projects but the majority are in the slow-track when it comes to getting the big things done. Russell Southwood looks at why some countries talk, whilst others do.

Changing an economy through introducing ICT is akin to trying to set up a whole row of spinning plates. Without infrastructure, you can’t get media, services and applications. Without media, services and applications, you can’t get critical mass. Without critical mass, there’s no-one to e-mail or exchange videos with, so why bother? And that’s before you get on to all the “nice things” that might happen if African governments delivered their services better.

The private sector can do many things but even in Africa it does not do very high risk investment and it does not go where tomorrow’s market is today. For example, despite all the heady promises made at the Connect Africa event in Kigali last year, the new vertically integrated mobile companies are unlikely to lay extensive high-capacity microwave or fibre infrastructure quickly. They will follow the market in metro areas and connect up major cities. They have shareholders’ money to look after and it would be unusual if they did otherwise.

But for Africa’s fast track economies where growth is running ahead of the global average, it is important that they get in place the new global ICT infrastructure to support their changing economies today. Access to fibre really is the fuel of the new global economy: the cutting of the Flag cable to North Africa and Asia illustrates this all too vividly in a negative way.

For five years and more, African Presidents and Ministers have been making speeches about how important ICT is and how they wish to use it to attract new jobs. If words were money, Africa would be rich beyond its wildest imaginings. Some of this “blah,blah,blah” has led to new initiatives but in most countries these have simply fizzled out. But recently in East Africa, Kenya and Uganda took decisions that they would build national infrastructures. Kenya decided that it would initiate its own international fibre connection.

Spurred by the World Cup in 2010, South Africa has more international fibre plans for the West Coast of the continent and has set up Infraco to intervene in the broadband connectivity supply market. To meet its growing connectivity needs, Angola is going to buy a Russian satellite. Nigeria has launched Nigcomsat and set up Galaxy Backbone to address the Government’s own connectivity needs.

None of these initiatives are above criticism and indeed some are questionable but it is interesting to see that some countries are taking steps to do something rather than simply talking about what needs to be done. However, these countries are the exception rather than the rule. They are the fast-track countries that either have oil-revenues and/or have burgeoning economies that are not solely reliant on mineral extraction. However, mineral wealth is quite widely spread across the countries of the continent and there are significant numbers who have it that are not “stepping up to the plate”. The remainder of the countries concerned have a range of relatively easy excuses: lack of money, lack of education, corruption and much else besides. But if Nigeria or Uganda can foster these kinds of changes, why is it that Gabon or Ghana do not?

Making change in the ICT space requires a particular chemical mix that involves both Government and others, along with a magic ingredient that consultants call vision, but might better be called imagination. Those that have taken initiatives have had the courage to imagine that their countries might go from being global victims to becoming attractive places to live and work. Rwanda’s President Kagame rarely sets a room alight with a speech but he has understood that if his small country Rwanda is to find a place in the global economy, it’s going to be necessary to work very hard at providing the conditions in which that might happen. He and his country may or may not be successful and they may or may not have the capacity to succeed but you cannot fault them for trying.

Getting a Government that does something requires getting a number of committed people in place. Firstly, there has to be a President who does not just make the speeches but also provides political backing and resources to get things done. Africa still has highly centralised decision-making processes and without Presidential backing, no-one takes you seriously.

Next there has to be Minister who can take that backing and motivate the sometimes indolent and leaderless civil servants in the appropriate Ministry and get into dialogue with the private sector and others about what needs to be done and how to achieve it. The Minister is nothing without a highly articulate and energetic civil servant who can: “carry the message”, respond quickly to all the interested parties and knows how to manage initiatives successfully.

All set and ready to go? No. Government by itself working “top-down” is one hand clapping in an empty room. There needs to be a vocal, critical but supportive private sector that knows how to make demands and shape projects. Alongside them has to be an equally vocal civil society that speaks up for the non-market requirements like education and health. Everyone at every level needs to understand the difference between having a successful meeting and actually getting something to happen. No more self-congratulatory speeches to other Ministers but time to concentrate on a small number of achievable initiatives and work to deliver them.

In a subjective assessment carried by Balancing Act of the sixteen West African countries on the basis of the above criteria, only two countries (Nigeria and Senegal) met these conditions outlined, although the latter does not really have an active private ICT sector because of the dominance of the incumbent Sonatel. Ghana has the scale of economy to succeed but somehow never really manages to convert all the right words into political will and thereafter into action. The majority of the others have strong individual servants and sometimes Ministers but they lack Presidential and/or private sector and civil society support.

Nearly all of these “slow-track” economies lack the imaginative response to change that says if the country gets ICT support in place, we can start building a very different place to live. They may - like Mali – have a small-scale illustrative project (a Government-sponsored call centre) but this project (or even groups of small projects) are not life-changing enough for the countries concerned. And please do not bleat to me about how these types of countries lack money as there are both private and public sources of financing for those who have the ideas and energy to attract it. Open economies with ideas about their future are at a premium in the global economy.

For private sector ICT companies, whether carriers or vendors, the obstacles in the slow track economies make selling services there a complicated business. For the individual small ISP owner, it means that he or she become not just the commercial head of their company but also unpaid policy advocate in the continuous trench war over a favourable ICT policy.

The big companies like Cisco, Google and Microsoft have understood that they are not simply selling “kit” or software but have to create the “weather” that will allow more open markets to flourish. This week Microsoft and the Centre Africain d’Etudes Supérieures en Gestion (CESAG) have entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU), which aims to deliver high-quality ICT policy training to government employees in West and Central Africa. CESAG is an institution specialising in the delivery of government-related training and leadership capacity building across

French-speaking Africa.

Microsoft’s Regional Technology Officer Nicol Woodward is tasked with influencing Government across 10 policy areas that include: interoperability; identity, privacy; innovation; IPR; accessibility; spectrum allocation; standards, DRM and formats, and GAP. What’s GAP? It’s Microsoft’s way of looking at Government as decision-maker, influencer and customer. G stands for governance. A for Architecture in the sense of how everyone will get networked and P for procurement.

Like other large vendors, it has both to both set up the debate and try to reap the rewards that come from the dialogue. It would not be a business if it did not want to make sales but it can’t simply say “we’re right and all the other guys are wrong”. Creating a successful economy involves complex but vital debates around issues as diverse as IPR and piracy and how you foster innovation. The answers chosen by policy-makers to these many debates are all linked: get one wrong and it becomes harder to get the others right.

As Woodward told us:”We have got to the point in Nigeria where we are having in-depth discussions about IPR and DRM. It’s the same with Angola. These are blossoming economies and they want to get it right. We want to explain things from our viewpoint but whatever they install, they are well informed in making that decision.”

Obviously explaining these issues cannot be left to the Microsofts of this world alone but given the perilously low levels of understanding in many countries, the discussion has to start somewhere. The issue is then how public these debates are for if they are conducted entirely behind closed doors then they will not be subjected to the full force of all viewpoints.

The difficulty is that for some Open Source advocates that choosing it is so blindingly obvious that they forget it is debate with two sides. The more thoughtful Open Source advocates, like Microsoft, believe this is a debate that they can win on the merits of the arguments. But whichever road you choose, you have to have a growing economy to have the expertise and resources to make it a debate worth having.

So if Africa is to have more open, successful economies that can begin to ride the waves of global expansion and contraction, then it will require multinational (and regional) ICT operators to take more interest in the continent. And for its politicians to understand that words do not feed mouths.