Africa and the Digital Divide - Three Clouds don't make a Rainy Season

5 May 2000

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Three large clouds crossed the sky in terms of Africa and the digital divide debate. Politicians at an international level have begun to focus how the "losers" in the new media race can be helped. An interesting industry initiative from the US West Coast has begun to turn its attention to Africa and the development of its internet capacity among the poor. Finally an Indian company has announced a sub-$200 computer (see last issue) that is clearly aimed at widening access in developing countries. But do three clouds make a rainy season? We review what these initiatives might do and conclude with some hard questions which we hope you'll be able to give us answers to.


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United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan issued a call to the leaders of the world's richest nations to bridge the digital divide and spread information technology to the world's poor nations. Those attending the G8 conference in Okinawa heard the call and responded. The headline grabbing response came from Japanese PM Mr Mori who announced at the summit meeting that Japan would commit US$12 billion in loans and US$3 billion in grants over five years to information-technology initiatives in the developing


world. (And the man giving it all away has only just learned how to use a mouse.) The move is intended to prompt similar commitments from other countries. Even the countries with more modest ambitions and resources are moving in this direction. The UK's development ministry DFID in its planned White Paper on international development will include a section on developing countries "in an information and knowledge-based global economy."


However this was not the United States turn to come up with similar sums. United States officials said that information technology held promise for creating economic opportunity as well as improving access to health care and education. But they noted that while there are now an estimated 332 million people connected via the Internet around the world, only 1 percent live in Africa. And less than 5 percent of the computers connected to the Internet are in developing countries. The officials would not offer any United States commitment or pledge of a specific dollar amount to help bridge the digital divide. But they said they would welcome such proposals from other nations and from the American private sector.


Slightly before this G8 initiative a task force to tackle the issue was established by the World Economic Forum. It was they who had been "bending the ear" of the Japanese PM about doing something. There was some understandable sensitivity about self-interest."This is all about self-interest," said Vernon J. Ellis, international chairman of Andersen Consulting, a member of the task force. "There is nothing wrong with self-interest, as long as it is enlightened, long-term self-interest."


The task force, including the chief executives of Sony Corporation and Toshiba Corporation, Japan's two largest consumer electronics companies, proposed a set of principles including telecommunications and Internet deregulation, universal access to education and technology training, as well as support and financing for small entrepreneurs. The proposal, prepared at Japan's request this year at the Davos meeting, also includes the creation of a Peace Corps-style volunteer group, the Global Digital Opportunity Corps, and the establishment of local technology community centers.


Much of the critical reaction to the announcement focused on the loan element of the package: development NGOs were quick to point out that the Japanese initiative could be read as a trade promotion scheme that might sell lots of Japanese hardware. You do not need to be quite that skeptical to see the difficulties posed by the sale of large amounts of "kit" on credit especially in Africa. Opportunities for corruption are all-too-real when large contracts are let.


At a more profound level, the needs of the digital infrastructure are seen as competing with "real" development. One wonders if say the car was a recent invention the same people who argue against investing in the internet would argue against it for the same reasons. Kathy Foley of Nua Internet Surveys summed up the dilemma rather well:


"The problems of the developing world are not one-dimensional... For these countries, it should not be a choice between food, shelter and education on one hand and access to communications technologies on the other. If they get the technology alone, they will go hungry. If they only succeed in feeding and sheltering their citizens without developing an adequate communications

infrastructure, then these countries will always be "Third World" as they will never be able to compete fairly with industrialised countries. A holistic approach is needed". Holistic obviously has the right ring to it and we're willing to be persuaded but how will it work in practice?


It is also not unreasonable to ask: who benefits? Whilst African countries desperately need a digital infrastructure that will allow them to do business effectively in a global economy, their politicians have to persuade their people (or all too often just themselves) why money should be spent in this way. The internet in the developed world has in so many ways been a "bottom-up" movement. At various points even some parts of the business sector have been in danger of being left behind. In order for the digital divide to be closed in Africa the idea that the internet is important and why has to win "hearts and minds" on a wider scale than it does at present. For example, three Technology Access Community Centres (TACC) in the delta of Egypt which have generated over 3000 community Internet users many of whom cannot afford the Cyber-Cafe fees of US3.5 dollars per hour. In addition, the TACCs in Egypt have trained hundreds of community members from all walks of life to use the Internet for their benefit at little or no costs.




Significant elements of the US West Coast technology industry is putting together an ambitious initiative to fight global poverty. And they plan to use the Internet to do it. Digital Partners ( says it wants to change the definition of philanthropy. The group will not ive food, clothing, or shelter to the poor. It will offer them online content instead.


"We're looking to put together creative applications of the Internet that will provide immediate benefits for the poorest of the poor," president Craig Smith said. "This is not trickle-down economics." Funded by the Kellogg, Ford, and Rockefeller foundations, DigitalPartners was formed last year to cultivate talent and other resources designed to narrow the global digital divide.


Last month, at a meeting in Redmond hosted by Microsoft, it launched a five-year global plan, which will begin with the India Initiative. The organization has created a working group of 65 India-born technology entrepreneurs, who will brainstorm to come up with a series of Internet-focused proposals.


The idea is to use the wealth and expertise of the extensive network of Indian engineers and entrepreneurs to help the nearly 330 million Indians who live in abject poverty. One of the main reasons Digital Partners picked India as its first target country is the presence of a large Indian community in the United States. It's a community that is closely knit, highly skilled, and financially sound. "Forty percent of all new startups are run by Indians. Together they account for nearly $235 billion in market capitalization," Smith said. And more than half of all H-1B visas for entry to the USgo to Indian engineers.


Better still, the current crop of immigrants also has strong business and social connections to their country of birth. "Most of these people live in two worlds. Many of them have a branch office in India," executive director Akhtar Badshah said. "This is away for them to develop local talent for their own businesses and markets."


And unlike the traditional India elite, these newly minted multi-millionaires are eager to do more than just write a check to their favorite charity. They want to use their IT skills to develop a brandnew approach to development and economic growth, he said.


The main philosophy underlying the India Initiative is the idea that the poor are profitable. Badshah argues companies have been slow to recognize the value of creating products aimed at the bottom of the economic pyramid, citing the approach of the Grameen Bank and its micro-loans.


For now, the fund will focus on three main areas: literacy, healthcare, and micro-enterprise directed especially toward women. Women, for example, could learn more about contraception. Or a farmer can get more accurate information on prevailing market prices for farm products. There are several micro- projects in place to wire rural areas using solar panels. Others are turning to cellphones to connect villages that have never seen a telephone line. The India Initiative hopes to build on and perhaps reorganize the various IT initiatives that are already in place. Badshah says the response so far has been overwhelming.


With the India Initiative underway, Digital Partners is already setting its sights on other parts of the world. Next in line will be the Africa Initiative, which will be launched next month. See,1284,37046,00.html




Finally it's worth repeating the news that an Indian company will produce a sub-US$200 computer aimed at cracking the hardware price entry barrier that exists for most people in Africa. Later versions will feature wireless technology that also holds out great hope in leapfrogging the need for costly landlines. Could the "informal redistribution of resources" by those who take the copper telephone lines in Zambia finally be nearing an end?


However like a lot of great ideas it will need the capital and marketing behind it to make it a success. The technology field is strewn with great ideas that nobody bought because they did not know about them or were unable to obtain them.



You will not be surprised to hear that this low-cost computer again is an Indian initiative. Countries like Brazil and India show what might be achieved if there were a greater "critical mass" of technology skills in Africa. Also the link between those Indians who have emigrated to the USA to work in Silicon Valley and their desire to help their country of birth provides a crucial element in the last two items.


All of which is good news for those interested in seeing the internet in Africa develop and we could leave it at this point with our readers feeling nothing but warm feelings. But the hard questions won't go away:


*   How exactly will a digital infrastructure help African economies grow? What will it do that water pumps or good roads can't?


*   Where will the skills (technical and managerial) come from to operate an upgraded digital infrastructure?


*   How will African economies grow to enable them to service the digital infrastructure? Why's it going to be different this time? Why won't say a billion dollars worth of computers turn into the digital equivalent of potholed roads?


*   How will African governments and external funders avoid a large "scoop" of the funds "wandering off" into the hands of corrupt officials or politicians?


We want it all to work but remain haunted by these questions. If you can provide answers to them, we will happily print the responses and if they are many and interesting award a prize (yet to be devised) for the best contribution.


My thanks to Mary Kint, Sean Osner, James Beninger, Bill Caughey and many others who identified the material that appears in this story.




I am interested in the discussion of the place of African countries in the Internet. John Dada's article on the Nigerian situation (News Update 16) makes interesting reading and brings home the situation here. I represent Grassroots Women foundation, an NGO that seeks to build solidarity among women's groups in Nigeria by encouraging exchange of information. It is therefore no wonder that I am worried about the state of communications in the country. The statistics provided by John show the relatively low use of Information technology in the country generally. It is thus obvious that the average woman even in the urban areas has little access to all the available technology that makes the world a global village.


For the very few who try, the facts shared by John has shown how much higher they have to pay for it. This very fact discourages a large percentage of the population from taking advantage of these facilities. For instance, the absence of ISPs in cities outside Lagos makes life difficult for individuals and organisations who need to use internet facilities. For each e-mail message I send from Enugu in Eastern Nigeria, I have to pay for connecting to the ISP in Lagos first. I am excited by all the new developments envisaged and I hope the ISPs will start providing services from other towns listed as planned and very soon too. I also hope that they will come with modern technology that will provide effective services and not outdated ones.


Ngozika Oji


Grassroots Women Foundation






321 Technologies, a Johannesburg-based IT company has announced, a website and a wapsite that supplies full e-mail to anyone in South Africa who has a WAP enabled cellphone.




The UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) last week signed a formal agreement guaranteeing the impact of information and communications technologies on women will be included in policy dialogue and decision-making. The three agencies will encourage governments and the telecommunications industry to recruit, employ and train women on fair and equitable access to the technologies. The agreement also identifies areas in which the agencies will cooperate, jointly monitor and evaluate the implementation of women's empowerment in national development plans around the world. As part of their new collaboration, the three agencies will jointly monitor and evaluate the implementation of women's empowerment in national development plans around the world.


According to available data, around the world women account for:


             38 percent of ICT users in the United States


             25 percent in Brazil


             17 percent in Japan and South Africa


             16 percent in Russia


             7 percent in China


             4 percent in the Arab States


(source: Kabissa Newsletter, 14 July 2000)




Nigeria's Sunday Bada, the 1997 world indoor 400 metres champion, says he has been using the e-mail to train for the Olympics. Bada is in Nigeria's provisional Olympic athletics team of 45 which will embark on a training tour of the United States or Bulgaria next month. He is expected to be in the 32-strong squad for September's Sydney Games after the training tour.


"I'm with my laptop computer wherever I go and with this I communicate with my Italian coach Paolo Fellini who sends me my daily training schedules," Bada told Reuters. "I also e-mail him with a feedback on my progress." Bada, who competed at the 1996 Olympics, said that when training in Nigeria he had had problems downloading his messages.


The services provided by Nigeria's state-run phone company NITEL are meager for a country of 108 million people, with fewer than 500,000 lines connected.Private phone operators have been allowed to compete with NITEL as part of government efforts to carry out reforms in the telecommunications sector ahead of its privatisation next year. (source: Ulundi Newsletter)




The International Institute for Communication and Development (IICD) of the Netherlands has agreed to fund Information and Communication Technology (ICT) projects in Uganda's education sector. Marcel Werner, IICD Programme Manager, said the organisation will co-fund some ICT projects in education that Ugandans will choose themselves.




RedBrigade, formerly known as Mastech Europe, has launched its South African arm. The company, which styles itself as a digital revolutionary, has refocused its IT services offering to brick-and-mortar businesses.




The Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Council and its mandated agent Intersite will auction off vacant land worth millions with the assistance of SalesBid, a provider of auction-focused Web applications. [21 July 2000]





Libyan leader, Col. Moammar Kadhafi called for quick action on the implementation of the proposed African satellite project. Kadhafi made the call in Tripoli, when he addressed participants at the 6th extraordinary general assembly of the African Regional Organisation for Satellite Communications (Rascom). The Minister of Communications from Sierra Leone, Puget Momoh, supporting the project said: "Communication is still a major problem for Africans", he said. "Even today, it is difficult to establish a direct telephone connection between one African capital and another without going through Europe". Libya agreed to seed the project with a US7 million dollar contribution but Alcatel needs 18 million dollars to start the implementation of the project. Forty of the 53 countries on the continent have already joined the project. Some countries, especially in the East Africa, were still reluctant to subscribe to the project and were raising questions about the footprint of the satellite. (source: PANA)





The Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited is establishing two National Access Points (NAP) in Karachi and Islamabad to block Internet telephony and pornographic websites. Informed sources said that the NAP was being installed to monitor exiting circuits, traffic analysis and effective utilization of the Internet bandwidth. Telephone calls made via Internet have caused a huge revenue loss to the PTCL estimated to be in the range of US$2.8 million per annum. The NAP will enable the PTCL to effectively block all voice telephony over the Internet and the subscribers will not be able to access the porn web sites, the sources said. (source: Hope-Topica Digest - Issue 320)






We set out to identify African webcam sites. Plenty of opportunities for you if your interests combine animals and South Africa. No end of waterholes in game parks but nothing much more unusual. It appears that animals don't get privacy rights. Except for the Malian webcam of Bamako, we could find almost no webcams outside South Africa. Let us know what we're missing. has one of the longest lists, all of which come from South Africa. It includes: shots of 5FM music radio station's studio, live images ever 30 seconds from the waterholes in the Djuna Game Reserve, the Pretoria Zoo (more animals), the offices and laboratories of Datagenics (!), the Penguin rescue pool (after the oil spill) and a view of Cape Town including Table Mountain.


The best we could find was what we can only describe in music biz terms as a "novelty act". A webcam that claims to be of a toilet in the South African Parliament. As the site says, who knows you might just end up seeing your Member relieving themselves.


( then go to section on South Africa)


*   Over 5000 people worldwide subscribed to an online debate on Globalization and Poverty initiated by the World Bank Development Forum and co-moderated by it and Panos. Over 1000 people took part in the debate including academics, development professionals, economists, World Bank staff and many individuals. For those of you who missed the debate there is a summary on the Panos web site:





He might not be as well known as Stephen King, but Seth Godin is following the popular author's lead by offering his latest book for free on the Net. Godin, whose previous book Permission Marketing appears on college reading lists, will give away his 197-page successor, Unleashing the Ideavirus, on his site, and through Fast Company magazine.


Godin will sell a self-published hardcove version of Unleashing the Ideavirus on popular book-selling sites in September for $40. Godin, who sold more than 100,000 copies of Permission Marketing, says his new book is the first-ever distributed online in its entirety by a "bestselling author." A former VP of direct marketing for Yahoo (YHOO), Godin argues that most e-books, with the exception of 1,000 to 2,000 "brand-name" authors, eventually will be available for free online.


But not everyone shares that view of publishing's future. Although (AMZN) and agreed to sell Ideavirus and promote it throughout the year, at least one reseller turned down that opportunity.


"I think he'll get a lot of attention for it," says CEO Chris MacAskill. "[But] I don't think he's getting universal acceptance." MightyWords, which specializes in selling original content that is longer than a magazine piece but shorter than a book, turned down Godin's book, MacAskill says, because of its length and because the company wasn't convinced it should shell out valuable marketing dollars. MacAskill adds that he is skeptical of what he calls "doomsday scenarios that everything will be free. If you want the good stuff, you're going to have to pay."


Godin's experiment is about one month behind a similar online venture by Harvard Business School Professor D. Quinn Mills, author of about 18 books. Like Godin, Mills was frustrated with publishers' long time lines and decided to offer his latest book, e-Leadership, on the Web for free.


But in a twist to the excerpt-model described by Engel, Mills believes that enabling readers to download the entire book will prompt them to buy excerpts or chapters. "That may sound counterintuitive, but that's the Net," says Mills. "For executives, [getting an excerpt] is more valuable to them than the 300 pages.",1151,16909,00.html


(Source: Ronna Abramson, The Standard)






There is an industry standard emerging to deal with things like viewing of content by different access devices and bandwidth. You've probably heard of XML (extensible markup language). The basic idea is you develop "content" or format "data", or whatever it may be, in a manner that is independent of transmission and display, and write it in XML. Then your server processes the data through a filter defined by a "stylesheet" specified in a language called XSL (extensible stylesheet language). The stylesheet processor takes your XML data and transforms it, according to the rules in your XSL stylesheet, generating on-the-fly HTML for desktop browsers or WML for mobile devices, or SQL for a database, or your own specialized browser for viewing/editing/submitting e.g. medical or meteorological data, etc. etc.


This is an elegant solution that is fast becoming the "right way"(TM). Say you have 100 pages or pieces of data on your site, and, three types of clients: 1) Netscape/IE on PC, 2) Minibrowser or cell-phone or PDA and 3) email-access via a http-email gateway. Instead of having 300 pages (one copy of each page for each type of viewer) to create and maintain, you have 100 xml pages and 3 stylesheets. You can easily see how that makes a huge difference as your site scales up in size and in variety of access methods.



Similarly, you can use this method to convert prices in to local currencies depending on the location given by the browser, or translate certain key words into a different language on the fly.


This will be even more crucial when most net access devices will not even have a human attached to them, as it will be mostly machines exchanging tons and tons of data.


The possibilites are endless.


XML/XSL sounds complicated but it is actually simple. If you've seen HTML code, you will find XML very familiar but more structured, and more flexible. Most importantly, it is readily accessible and usable today. If you use apache as your webserver for example, you can start using it after a couple of days of poking around, and you can do it with all open source ("free") software. Since these are standards backed by the whole industry, with the security that the work you do today will not be obsoleted by some decision in marketing departement in some company.


Now, if you'll allow me one paragraph of pomposity.... (if not, skip this, and check out the links below) the idea of structuring and representing data (including web pages, databases, anything) in a manner that is independent of transport and display is a very big deal. With HTML/HTTP, we have separation of data formatting+linking from transport, and that is the conceptual essence of the WWW up to now. But the limitation is that with HTML, formatting for display and the underlying structure of the information are hopelessly mixed up. Now we're seeing the next step. With XML, you get the structure independent of the output, and with XSL you generate appropriately formatted output on the fly with great flexibility.


Some places to get started:


Great resource especially for tutorials, examples etc.


Tools to work with


The overall "portal"


Quick reference for syntax when writing stylesheets:


The master reference, standard, very complete, but a little hard to read






*   American Tripod cofounder Ethan Zuckerman and his partner Elisa Korentayer are going to Ghana to set Geekcorps ( The non-profit plans to send tech workers to developing nations to build ecommerce systems, teach java to coders who work in cobol and deliver tech know-how. The first six volunteers will arrive in Accra in late September.


(source: Wired, August)


*   South African-based itweb has a jobs column for those interested in working in the ICT sector in South Africa. However, be warned! The site is very graphics heavy and takes an age to download. Go to:


*   Institute of Development Studies - BRIDGE - United Kingdom - gender and development research and communications unit. Web Co-ordinator - seeks an experienced web specialist with an interest in gender and development issues.


Details on:


*   Institute for War and Peace Reporting - media development charity and electronic publisher. Webmaster - London - assist in the design and maintenance of IWPR's award-winning website.


Details on:






For those of you who are interested in attending an academic conference on Internet Research, registration and the conference schedule is up at It has people from over 20 countries, and over 200 presenters. It is organised by the Centre for Digital Discourse and Culture of US-based Virginia Tech.


News Update is a free e-letter covering African internet content and infrastructure developments published by Balancing Act. The latest issue and all previous issues appear on the web site (, which is a Balancing Act pilot project. For further information about Balancing Act and its pilot projects, contact Russell Southwood on All material is copyright but can be used if permission is sought.