MOZAMBIQUE GRAPPLES WITH HOW TO MAKE SENSE OF INTERNET CONTENT

19 July 2002

Top Story

As one of Africa’s poorest countries, Mozambique’s efforts to close the digital divide face the "what comes first, the chicken or the egg?" question. Without content to drive usage, the internet remains largely the tool of the wealthier urban elite. Business is sceptical: online advertising is not taking off because user numbers are small. However without content that is useful to the poor majority (most of whom live in rural areas), the user base is likely to grow very slowly. But for these people to be able to use content it needs to be free or at a price they can afford. Use at free or low price by people with little or no disposable income does not produce a business model that generates money that can finance content. Artur Manhica looks at the dilemma of Mozambique’s content providers and the wider issues they raise.

 

WHO’S CURRENTLY USING THE INTERNET

 

As with most developing countries, it is very difficult to assess the number of Internet subscribers or users in Mozambique. It is estimated that there are approximately 10,000 Internet subscribers in Mozambique. Nearly all ISPs are concentrated in the capital Maputo, with a few branches in Beira and elsewhere. There are now 14 Internet service providers and 16-18 POP’s (at least one in each province). Despite access fees of US$2.00 per hour at Internet cafés and dial-up charges of US$30/month, the Internet is growing slowly in Mozambique. One of the largest ISP’s in Mozambique has an average new subscriber rate of 25 customers/month (dial-up) and one leased line every two months. 92% of this ISP’s clients are organizations and ministries that are using dial-up accounts and some are leased-line based.

 

According to Bonifacio Antonio of SARDC, access to Internet in Mozambique is limited to an average of one user for every 1,700 inhabitants, which roughly translates into around 10,000 connections countrywide. This figure is slightly better than the African average of one connection for every 5,000 people, but much less than, for example, the South African average of one in 65. In European and North American countries, the average is one in four, comparisons aside, the numbers translate into a massive challenge for Africa as a whole. It has been estimated that each computer with an Internet or email connection in Africa usually supports a range of three to five users: this would translate into 30-50,000 users in a population of nearly 19 million

 

With a fast-growing population, the potential thirst for internet-based technology and hunger for quality content continues to grow. But the question facing the now nearly 14 ISPs is what kind of content will meet their needs? With current economic policies, income differentials have widened and there is only a 30% literacy rate. On this basis,there is a real danger that the poorest Mozambiquans will be marginalised from these technological developments.

 

The first national ICT survey was conducted in 2000 on 732 companies in order to understand how they used ICT. One of the findings of the survey indicated that most ICT activity and business was based in Maputo and that computers are perceived as luxury items that are not affordable. The survey also indicated that businesses are heavily dependent on email as opposed to searching the Web for information and that IT is not widely used throughout the country. Content was not perceived as important for company profitability or advertising. Furthermore, the banking sector is the principal sector that uses information technology.

 

ISDN technology is now wide-spread in Maputo where TDM (Mozambique Telecom) has been making important investments in improving the telephonic infrastructure for the country doubling the number of lines to approx. 160,000 fixed lines. Connections in Maputo appear to be the most robust, reaping the bulk of the benefit from this effort with new and upcoming wireless ISPs. While the number of alternatives grows in Maputo, the rest of the country which compose 85% of the population continues to rely on a single ISP, the Portuguese-based Teledata. Access in rural areas to full Internet will be slower in coming future although TDM continues to expand at the provincial infrastructure level, but email connections can be made available just about anywhere through alternative solutions such as store and forward systems and the use of high frequency radio signals. For full Internet access to be viable in cities outside of Maputo, arrangements need to be made to allow users to pay for a local phone call when making their connection to a service rather than having to call Maputo. The necessary administrative, technical and managerial expertise is lacking in rural settings which make up 9 of Mozambique’s 10 provinces. Moreover, the model of a development project operating with a business mandate is a new phenomenon.

 

The phenomenal worldwide growth of mobile phone subscribers in the world has also been reflected in Mozambique. Mobile services were launched in November 1997. The number of subscribers of mobile services prior to the introduction of prepaid services in 2000 was 23,000 clients. Since the launch of prepaid services in January 2001, there have been 2,000 new subscribers every week and the number of subscribers increased from 55,000 (since the introduction of prepaid services) to 100,000 in June 2001. This number is expected to double in FY03 with new competitive players arriving including the recently approved South Africa based cellular provider, Vodacom.

 

HOW ARE CONTENT PROVIDERS DOING AND WHAT DO THEY THINK

 

Faced with these circumstances, how can internet content make the technology useful and produce real sustainable development in one of Africa’s poorest countries? How can it play a role in eradicating poverty? Mozambique Online (www.mol.co.mz) managing editor, Professor Wim Neeleman believes that the use of information that will produce sustainable development needs to be taken seriously by the various players, especially by the private sector and the Goverenment.

 

According to Professor Neeleman, Internet content is skewed towards those with disposable incomes and higher educational levels. In his view, successful ICT initiatives are usually those that respond to Œreal social needs’ rather than being prescribed by Œtechnology pushers’. Initiatives where technical and contextual knowledge are disconnected, and where the control is located outside the community, are more likely to fail.

 

More attention needs to be paid to innovative ways of applying content to the specific information needs of communities and local groups. Not long ago, Mr. Neeleman created the first news "online" in Mozambique, a newsletter emailed enabling Mozambicans and interested parties abroad to be informed of news happening in Mozambique. Approximately two years ago he began the Mozambique Online initiative, again with the same philosophy; to share information and not to repeat information. His philosophy has been to facilitate the access of information not only throughout the provinces but also to include the international access.

 

The portal has currently approximately 400 hits per day. But Professor Neeleman is skeptical of the future of Mozambique Online’s portal sustainability. There is not a market for online paid advertising and the efforts of maintaining the site on a volunteer basis is costly in terms of both time and resources. Having good content alone is not enough and this will be a major challenge for the Government’s ICT policy (see below) and private investors.

 

>From a different perspective, Vitor Amaral, CEO of Syslog and managing editor of Imensis (www.imensis.co.mz) seeks to overcome these difficulties by encouraging local use and reinforcing traditional information networks. Victor Amaral believes that inefficiencies on the use of information underly the weaknesses of the use of portals. Founded two years ago, Imensis was built to become the first clearing house gateway for information exchange. It now focuses on critical information exchange with an approximate hit of 50,000 visitors per month.

 

Technologies exist for difficult environments according to Amaral. Despite the heavy costs, rural connectivity is feasible with the new range of options available world-wide. A menu of different technical and technological options needs to be tried and tested to enhance access to rural people.

 

But if the creation of more rural access is to be successful, more work needs to be done on developing content. Amaral thinks that the use of portal content, if to be truly successful, needs to move away from plugging and playing, chatting and surfing, getting information from abroad, with everything converging to one language, one culture and one market. It needs to be a two-way empowering system for businesses and communities, collaborating on social networking, producing local content, facilitating diversity of languages, cultures and opinions. One area that he demonstrated and has worked directly on, is the use of internet-radio connectivity since approximately 80% of the population relies on the radio to obtain valid and critical information. The government needs to mobilize efforts to ensure maximum use of technology. He sees the future of Imensis has a portal focused on selling third party products, telephony and fax service in order to be self-sufficient.

 

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE

 

Non-governmental organisations and private institutions are sometimes more trusted and efficient, but also cannot cope with the scale of demand for information. The urban poor largely have to rely on their social networks, key informants and knowledge within their communities, or sometimes from outside, for support in developing their livelihoods and coping with crisis, but this is inadequate to deal with every problem.

 

The urban poor in Mozambique are not a homogeneous group therefore social exclusion affects some people, particularly women who compose the bulk of illiterate population (approx. 73%) and the technologically excluded. Policy implications for development agencies to make their knowledge and information more accessible to the urban poor, and to strengthen the latter’s knowledge and information base include, to include a component to value their knowledge and create two-way communication.

 

They need to support communities to build knowledge and information capital, by taking stock of existing resources and addressing gaps. They need to build the capacity of key informants, empowering communities, and stimulating meeting places, resource centers and exchange visits. There needs to be a range of media, with the traditional alongside the new.

 

One of the aims of the Mozambique Development Gateway is to become a sustainable portal. The project is funded by the World Bank. It seeks to create a channel of dialog between and among civil society, the private sector and the government. The project’s ambition is also to develop more appropriate impact indicators, as well as more knowledge of the cost-effectiveness of alternative communication methods, and disseminate the results of urban-based work more widely.

 

Across town sits www.mzbusiness.co.mz a portal built to focus on the promotion of small and medium business online enterprises. The initial focus of Mzbusiness was to develop internet-based content as a means of promoting the business community in Mozambique, according to Lazaro Gonzales, one of the partners behind it. Their pride is visible as it is one of the most visited portals in Mozambique due to its information content. Mzbusiness’s goal is to become the leader for content that drives the market, according to Amina Bakar its General Manager.

 

But the road has not been without major challenges. Conveying the business opportunities to management of companies has not been easy. Although the use of technology has reduced costs, this has proven to be a major task. To be the leaders in content and to convince the client that product and catalog dissemination and effective advertising are means for growth has not been easy. Quality communication above technology is the vision of Mz.Business, to continue to lead the local effort but they feel the mentality of the business community needs to change.

 

Private cyber-cafes and telecentres are springing-up and becoming regular phenomenon of the modern Mozambique’s capital city Maputo. However, rural ICT projects need to be maintained and above all need to be sustained in order to reduce the national and regional digital divide within the country. Private-public partnerships are a necessary condition for the continued existence of rural portal projects but such partnerships are elusive. The private sector is impatient with the slow pace of public sector initiatives and especially with the public culture of subsidies.

 

The United Nations Sustainable Development Network Programme (SDNP) officially began activities in August of this year. SDNP seeks primarily to establish better networking and sharing of information (through email and a bulletin board service) among institutions concerned with sustainable development in Mozambique. The main participants include the Ministry of the Environment (MICOA—Ministry for Coordination of Environmental Affairs), CIUEM (Eduardo Mondlane University Information Technology), and UNDP/UNEP (United Nations Development Program/United Nations Environment Program). The project steering committee includes: the World Bank, TDM, LINK (a NGO umbrella group), and MediaCoop (a journalist’s cooperative), among others. SDNP is being coordinated currently by Teresa Alfaro from MICOA, although she is looking to hire a full-time coordinator who will function similarly to the Leland Coordinator being sought by USAID/Maputo. The main SDNP node will probably be placed at the Center for Technology Transfer in Maputo where a communications center is being established. The relay node for email connections will be maintained by CIUEM. They are planning on placing other nodes in Beira and Nampula that will be connected to CIUEM.

 

GOVERNMENT SEEKS TO LEAD THE WAY

 

The newly created Information and Communication Technologies policy (ICT) led by Prime Minister Pascoal Mocumbi will potentially offer powerful tools to improve health, contribute towards poverty alleviation and speed up the process of human development. Approved in 2000 the ICT Policy provides the principles and objectives that will permit ICTs to be a motor force for various aspects of national development, contributing toward the country’s participation in the global economy on the basis of information and knowledge and to better governance, wide access by citizens to the information society, eradication of absolute poverty, improvement of the living conditions of Mozambicans, and the conversion of the country from a mere consumer to a producer of ICTs.

 

Content development policy requires positive support at the highest level of political leadership. Although this has been attained at for ICT, considered as critical ingredients for national economy, project implementation is severely hampered by the poor infrastructure and rural connectivity whose provision, or lack there-of, were policy related needs to be implemented. The government, which is the largest buyer of information technology solutions in the country, procures 75% of IT products of Mozambique. As a key player, it is expected to drive the effort of transforming the portal content into a useful tool towards eradicating poverty and creating needed hope for the majority of Mozambicans thus maximizing information transfer towards poverty alleviation to the technological socially excluded majority baring in mind that bridging this gap will accelerate rural development.

 

The scale of the ICT challenge is immense. Despite the forces of market liberalization and globalization and efforts at public policy reform, the goal of achieving universal access to ICT and the Global Information Infrastructure has remained elusive, and the disparity in access to ICT is growing.

 

Artur Manhica is an IT solutions provider and CEO of an IT consulting company based in Maputo, Mozambique. He can be contacted at: manhica@webmail.co.za or +258-82-843-781

 

Selected web sites and portals

 

National Institute of Statistics www.ine.gov.mz

TDM www.tdm.com.mz or www.tdm.mz

MzBusiness www.mzbusiness.co.mz

Metical Metical@zebra.co.mz

Mozambique Online www.mol.co.za

Imensis http://www.imensis.co.mz/

Newspaper www.agora.co.mz

Telecenters www.telecentros.org.mz

School Net www.uem.mz/schoolnet

ICT Policy Commission http://www.infopol.gov.mz/

Dataconn http://www.dataconn.net/

Review of Commercial Code www.commercialcodemoz.co.za

The Yellow Pages www.paginasamarelas.co.mz

The Polana Hotel www.polana-hotel.com

Central Bank of Mozambique www.bancomoc.mz

IPEX www.ipex.org

National Survey on IT www.infopol.gov.mz/proj_pol/etado.htm

Mozambique www.mozambique.mz

MCel http://www.mcel.co.mz

CIUEM www.iscd.mz

Tropical Net www.tropical.co.mz

Teledata www.teledata.mz

VirConn www.virconn.com

VirDesign www.virdesign.net