Bridging the digital divide

 

The challenges that information and communication technology development faces in Africa have to be tackled at the same level at which they occur if the continent needs to close the widening digital divide currently persisting in many countries.

This is so because the digital divide in the continent of Africa is set to widen even further if Africans do not take it upon themselves to come up with specific solutions for specific challenges facing Africa and her citizenry.

Due to many socio-economic challenges such as poverty, hunger and diseases, African countries lack adequate information and communication technologies infrastructure to carry data especially to the remotest parts of their respective countries.

Furthermore, they face a number of hurdles in order to roll out effective information and communication technologies that ensure easy access of information to citizens.

These roll out challenges contain cost of computers and equipment; inadequate access technologies (telephone lines and wireless); poor international bandwidth; regulation; ICT illiteracy on policy decision makers; and brain drain.

Africa hence needs more affordable information and communication technology to overturn these problems and to bridge the gaping digital divide.

“Closing the digital divide means we need more affordable technology, which means we need to keep the costs of development and manufacturing as low as possible,” said Zimbabwe’s Postal and Courier Services Minister, Webster Shamhu.

Keeping the costs of information and communication technology development and manufacturing as low as possible is crucial as ICTs play a catalytic role in creating opportunities for people in all walks of life.

Samia Melhem, lead policy officer at the World Bank Washington, believes that to reduce costs, governments must get mobile operators on board.

“They are a powerful set of allies. We get bombarded with cost of roaming information as soon as we land in a new country. Why cannot we get SMS-based information about the school next door, water points, health clinics, or road safety?”

Minister Shamhu said the development of affordable information and communication technology infrastructure also carries important public benefits when it comes to bridging the digital gap.

Delia Lloyd, senior policy manager at BBC Media Action, however warns Africa to think outside of ‘high-tech’ technologies, adding that innovation in development should not be conflated with technology.

“There are many ways to innovate in development and lots of different types of technology can help us achieve our goals. High technology is not always the way to go,” explained Lloyd.

Attention must be given to simple forms of technology such as interactive voice responses and low cost digital libraries.

Robert Ndlovu, an expert in digital libraries, agrees and believes that investing in ICTs is an easy avenue of establishing digital libraries which are cost effective ways of empowering ordinary people with information on their fingertips.

“Digital libraries bring relevant digital content where users are, developing countries are able to tailor-make their information needs based on their own assessment of such needs,” said Ndlovu.

To effectively establish digital libraries, Africa must connect villages with Information and Communication Technologies to bring the Internet to the users and improve access to critical information.

More so, stakeholders in the science fraternity must develop technology in the field and build technical tools, applications and mobile devices to implement and scale technological products in small rural villages.

Ida Jeng, director of global communication and strategy, Refugees United, Nairobi, Kenya says: “… I would like to see more technical tools and solutions being built on the ground and in close co-ordination with the communities they are intended to serve.”

Strong policies and strategies are also needed to close the digital divide that is rampant in Africa. Raul Zambrano of the United Nations Development Program, says policy is strongly needed to bridge the gap between decision makers and ICT practitioners.

“ICTs need to be on development policy agendas to have any real impact on the ground,” Zambrano said, adding that there is however a policy gap between key decision makers and ICT practitioners.

He goes on to say: “The former see ICT as just another theme and perhaps a good tool to change a few things around. 

The latter tend to see ICTs as an end in themselves, and one that can change everything by itself. This gap is perhaps best reflected in the current sustainable development goals or post-2015 discussions where ICTs are barely mentioned.”

With proper policies, African countries can utilise their resource to roam to broadband for economic transformation, and to effectively adopt the digital library not only in towns and urban settings but in rural areas too.

Governments as major stakeholders must only battle to develop community information centres in rural areas as the adoption of community information centres is one sure way of closing the digital gap and in the process empowering citizens with relevant and up-to-date quality information.

June 2014
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