Ensure we benefit from the fourth industrial revolution

A few years ago in northern Namibia, a young communal farmer was talking to one of his farm employees. The conversation was about the farmer buying a mobile phone for the employee.

The farmer walked away confused because he could not comprehend why the farm worker wanted a phone with Facebook, soccer news, WhatsApp, Bluetooth and a camera.

The farmer’s concern was the fact that a smartphone, as requested, would be underutilized and eventually become obsolete, mainly because mobile network coverage in remote rural areas in Namibia is very poor and at times non-existent.

He went further to ask if there was hardly any network for conventional voice calls, where the internet connectivity would come from.

But this story is not unique to Namibia, as it is a story that characterises the whole of southern Africa and most parts of Africa.

This farm labourer was most probably informed by relatives who reside in urban centres that one could now be connected to their family via social media and have access to the news via their mobile phones.

But this part of the SADC population, though in the majority, is excluded from such services which have become a basic right in 2017.

Citizens of the region are forced to live different realities in this regard mainly because the telecommunication and ICT companies refuse to rollout infrastructure to the rural communities.

Last week, SADC Ministers responsible for communication and information communication technologies (ICT) met in Durban, South Africa, to discuss the progress made in their endeavours to ensure that everyone in the region has access to fast, affordable and reliable internet connectivity regardless of their social, economic standing and geography.

It was re-emphasised that in June 2015, in Walvis Bay, Namibia, the ministers adopted the six International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU) Connect 2020 targets to allow for affordable and universal broadband access, as well as the increase in the usage of broadband services in the SADC region.

A subsequent meeting held last year in Gaborone, Botswana, resolved that there was a need to align the SADC Broadband indicators with the ITU’s ICT indicators as well as UNESCO’s ICTs in Schools Indicators.

The SADC Broadband Targets also resolved that Member States should strive to achieve namely; that 80 percent of the population of each SADC Member State be covered by broadband services by 2020; that there be broadband connections to all primary and secondary schools to allow e-education by 2020; that there be broadband connections to 70 percent of the health facilities to allow e-health by 2020; broadband connections to all public sector agencies to allow for e-government by 2020; broadband connections to 50 percent of the SADC Member States households by 2020; and that broadband services per month should not cost more than 5 percent of GNU per capita by 2020.

It was also decided that considering that since people in the region are interconnected not only via commerce but family, Member States must strive to reduce the high cost of roaming in the region.

It was very evident when various ministers spoke that they are unhappy and frustrated by the fact that those they represent are being deprived of these services.

And when the service providers in the sector spoke, it became clear that they do not live in the same SADC the ministers and the ordinary rural poor live. They service providers where too busy flaunting their latest technology and talking about how technology is a part of everyday life and how SADC can move with the world into the fourth industrial revolution. What was absent was solution to the challenges faced by the lower end of the market.

The ministers also called on service providers to consider finding solutions or packages for the neglected population. They emphasised the fact that the majority of the people in the region either reside in rural areas or informal settlements, so clearly there is a business case as this is an untapped market.

We call on the ministers and regulators to ensure that service providers cater for everyone at an affordable rate. If there was really no business case, then none of the tech companies will be setting up shop in SADC or Africa.

In fact, is it is easy to exclude the majority and still charge hefty services fees in the name of profit.

With 2020 coming, it is our hope that SADC will not be on the wrong end of the digital divide when the time comes.

September 2017
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