By Klara Smits
Though not on top of the international agenda, the importance of connectivity for promoting development in Africa drew the focus at a discussion event during the June 2-3 European Development Days (EDD), designed as a flagship event of the European Year for Development (EYD).
The two-day marathon of discussions that included a series of pressing issues such as health, gender inequality, climate change and migration, was purported to create public awareness for three big conferences scheduled for this year: financing for development conference in Addis Ababa July 13-16, the post-2015 development agenda UN summit in September and the climate conference in Paris in December.
Connectivity is not only about Internet and phone access that connects people. As panellists pointed out, it bridges multifarious developmental issues. Connectivity, aided by satellite technology, they said, can facilitate the delivering of public goods in Africa. They also discussed how public-private partnerships could help facilitate connectivity.
Internet connectivity in Africa is growing, said Dan Isaac, Senior Manager at SES Satellite Company. Whereas currently the connectivity amounts to16 percent, this figure is expected to rise up to around 50 percent by 2025. Satellites, he said, could play an important role in increasing the penetration of access to Internet inland, rather than only along the coasts where cables below the sea level play an important role. The challenge is thus in connecting to not just the big cities, but also the remote communities who could benefit immensely from Internet and telephone connections.
How does connectivity benefit remote communities? Heather Saunders from the non-governmental organisation ‘Plan International’ described a project in Uganda, which introduced Nokia cell phones to teachers, students and parents. Saunders explained how via anonymous text messaging, pupils could communicate with each other on problems in the school. Furthermore, teachers were able to monitor attendance and coordinate meeting schedules, thus improving the communication with parents.
This improved not only participation, but also accountability of the teachers. They became more open towards to pupils. Michelle Makaroff of Teacher Media International (TMI) described a project in Kenya, which aims to train more than 300,000 teachers. The training will first be given face-to-face, but would afterwards be continued in Internet communities. However, said Makaroff, this cannot be done in isolation. Partnerships are needed.
Another area, in which connectivity is of pivotal importance, is healthcare. Both SES and TMI touched upon the online channel ‘Fight Ebola’, which broadcast educational videos during the Ebola crisis.
Mirjam van Reisen, Professor and member of the board of the Phillips Foundation, referred to the Community Life Centres: rural health centres powered by renewable energy, which will require the SES satellites for communication. SES’s SATMED programme had already demonstrated how satellite connectivity could improve healthcare in maternity clinics in Africa. Francoise Moreau of the European Commission’s director general for Development Cooperation, said data was important for environmental issues.
Connectivity connects the three dimensions of sustainability: economy, society and the environment. Research shows that satellites are an important part of the ‘connectivity mix’, according to van Reisen.
Wanted a new business model
Ibrahim Sorie, Ambassador of Sierra Leone in Brussels, underlined the absolute importance of ICT for development in his county. Besides education, health and environment, communication can help to prevent conflicts. Sierra Leone was undertaking concerted efforts to strive for connectivity to even the remotest communities. The objective was to provide true access for all. To do this, stressed Sorie, public-private partnerships were necessary.
Panellists agreed that the price of connectivity, especially satellite technology, was still relatively high and affordability of connectivity was therefore on top of the agenda among specialised circles. A new business model was needed to increase access to the most low-income users, because connectivity was a global public good, the panellists argued.
Development of capacities in Africa, beneficial to national regulatory frameworks and a sector in Africa that can help develop the data economy were important to sustainability, argued Mirjam van Reisen. Through partnerships, technical advances need to advance hand-in-hand with societal changes, which will allow the technology to integrate.
Both funding and capacity building require cooperation, between the European Union and Africa, between private and public corporates, between experts and communities. In light of this important year for development, connectivity through ICT should be promoted through the Sustainable Development Goals.