The ubiquitous broadband has suddenly become the springboard from which nations seek to do so much for themselves within the interconnected world. In this report Olubayo Abiodun, Clifford Agugoesi and Chimezie Ndubisi highlight the nexus between high-speed internet connectivity and the attainment of the MDGs by African nations
AFRICAN governments are still fixated on how to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) given the many challenges that they have to deal with. The mandate has not been made any easy given the rising costs of governance, spiralling challenges and competing needs in the midst of dwindling fortunes in the political and economic spheres. From combating diseases to reducing child mortality, implementing Universal Basic Primary Education, ensuring gender equality, intractable security issues and political upheavals, the MDGs are somewhat intertwined. This is where mobile broadband has been described as the single most important hope left for Africa to accelerate towards meeting the MDGs by the target date of 2015.
Pundits have stressed that if African countries can embrace the unique power of mobile broadband technology, the continent has a good chance of meeting the MDGs deadline. The key areas of focus for Africa with regards to the MDGs are education, health and environment. The concern in the area of education was exemplified last month when statistical detailed unveiled that 10.5 million children of school age in Nigeria go about roaming the streets instead of being in the classrooms.
It is in these three broad areas (education, health and environment) that industry experts think the mobile broadband has a significant role to play in pushing forward the profile of the African continent. The argument is that mobile broadband is an easily deployable solution for providing education in under-served areas. Statistics showed that about 90 per cent of children in the developing world are enrolled in primary school.
However, in some regions like sub-Saharan Africa, it is said that up to 30 per cent of children drop out before their final primary year. But from recent developments it has been observed that broadband can better engage children, equipping them with valuable ICT skills and opening a window on the world’s information resources, in a multitude of languages. Mobile broadband has also been helpful in the financial inclusion of the majority of Africans who reside in the hinterlands of the continent. For instance, about 70 per cent of Africans living in the rural areas make up the population of the continent.
Today societies; inclusive of people, governments and institutions, are increasingly interacting with one another via the connected devices. So with a population of about one billion people on the African continent, the prevalence of mobile broadband will ensure higher uptake of devices that creates more affinity among the people on the continent and the rest of the world. This is already being made manifest in the frontiers of healthcare and agriculture as increased efficiencies and greater participation by disconnected people are opening new possibilities of better life for excluded Africans.
By the growth pattern, Africans will have decent share of the market in the estimated 50 billion connected devices that will be in the global markets by 2020. For instance, more Africans can participate in the mobile money and mobile banking services without necessarily visiting the banking hall.
This is the same way ICT has made profound impact on the health care systems in the rural areas in some Africa countries. Fundamental transformations are already taking place with simple SMS reminders for vaccinations or anti-retroviral treatments, to grassroots information gathering on demographics and diseases, to mobile information repositories for personal health records, mobile phones are becoming a key cornerstone of health programmes in a growing number of African countries.
Engaging the mobile broadband for healthcare delivery has become particularly imperative because of the high mortality rate among pregnant women. Records show that more than half a million women die as a result of complications in pregnancy and childbirth. Majority of such deaths were said to be preventable. To improve on this sad state of affairs, Africans are already benefiting from broadband capacities to improve healthcare delivery on the continent. Community field workers in the health sector are already getting exposed to some training that brings better healthcare delivery to people in the rural areas.
Broadband has also emerged to be a vital link in the agriculture sector. In Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria, mobile phones are being deployed to enhance farming and farmers’ value chain. Significantly, mobile tools are now helping local farmers and fishermen to access credits, fertilisers, seedlings, fingerlings, and weather forecasts directly to their mobile phones and providing information on sustainable farming techniques. The mobile phones have also helped in reducing the wastages and corruption since middlemen are gradually being removed in the agriculture value chain in the Nigerian agriculture ecosystem.
Arising from the flurry of positives coming from the broadband deployment across Africa, experts say that the ubiquitous mobile broadband is a big idea whose time has come. This is because it is also helping to achieve another of the MDGs – that of developing a global partnership for development.
Even at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a UN specialised agency for ICT, developing such a partnership is a basic essence of its work. This is because the professionals at the ITU understand the incredible potentials of broadband. This understanding gave birth to the Broadband Commission for Digital Development to help move broadband to the top of the political agenda.
This multi-stakeholder commission comprises over 50 top-level global leaders, and has defined a vision for accelerating the deployment of broadband networks worldwide. It has also established four critical targets that all countries are expected to push to attainment by 2015:
Target 1: Making broadband policy universal. By 2015, all countries should have a national broadband plan or strategy or include broadband in their universal access/service definitions.
Target 2: Making broadband affordable. By 2015, entry-level broadband services should cost less than 5 per cent of average monthly income.
Target 3: Connecting homes to broadband. By 2015, 40 per cent of households in developing countries should have Internet access.
Target 4: Getting people online. By 2015, internet user penetration should reach 60 per cent worldwide, 50 per cent in developing countries and 15 per cent in least-developed countries.
Though it is only three years to go to the target date, it has been observed that among all the targets of the MDGs the most advanced is the one involving ICTs. African stakeholders at the political level and investors are being urged to capitalise on that and use Africa’s near-ubiquitous mobile coverage to break old infrastructure bottlenecks and short-circuit the traditional development cycle.
It is the wake-up call that galvanised African stakeholders to make the promise of connecting 80 per cent Africans to the broadband by 2020. The pledge came at the recent inaugural ICT Indaba. At this event African ministers set a target to deliver broadband service to reach up to 80 per cent of African citizens by 2020.
South Africa’s Communications Minister, Dina Pule, told the gathering: “It is undeniable and it is very clear that delivering broadband to every citizen on the continent will accelerate the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals,”
At the event, which took place in June at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, Pule said work was done to ensure the conference crafted a framework that will position Africa on a trajectory to sustainable development through technology.
This event, which also served as peer review mechanism, aided the ministers’ focus on the creation of a solid foundation for a truly connected future for Africa. “In this connected future, all of Africa’s major cities, towns and villages will be connected to affordable Internet, thereby facilitating the continent’s mass entry into the knowledge and information economy,” Pule said.
The Indaba agreed to support the ITU in its plans to support the updating of the International Telecommunications Regulations. According to the ministers, this will help developing countries to benefit from the frameworks for interconnections and roaming in the telecom market. “African experts should also increase participation in the ITU study groups which focuses on these issues to influence their outcomes,” the Indaba concluded.
Pule said that a team was being set up to monitor the progress in the implementation of the Indaba’s resolutions and give feedback at regular intervals. “We shall work with the existing continental and regional organisations to get the cooperation of the rest of the countries that were not present at this indaba,” she said.
The minister said as well that the work of the Indaba would also assist in identifying and closing the skills gap within African countries. The greatest achievement of this approach would be to help Africa create its own technologies, instead of the continent just being a consumer.
The ICT Indaba ended with emphasis on the common desire and commitment to eradicate the barriers of poverty through the promotion and use of enabling ICTs to build and foster a people-centred knowledge-based economy in Africa.