Information Technology in Sub-Saharan Africa

Information Technology in Sub-Saharan Africa

International Perspectives, CACM

Information Technology in Sub-Saharan Africa

M. Odedra, M. Lawrie, M. Bennett, S. Goodman

Africa seems to be the "lost continent" of the information technologies (IT). The second largest continent is the least computerized[1], and its more than two score countries have an average telephone density that is an order of magnitude smaller than that of the European Community. A recent graphic on world computer densities used the map of Africa simply as a place to display the overflow data for Europe[8].

It may be argued that deficiencies in the use of IT are the least of the problems of a continent plagued by a history of exploitation, post- colonial political difficulties, bloody civil conflicts, and extensive health, educational, demographic and economic problems. Nevertheless, attention should be given to the fact that more than 500 million people have largely been left out of the "global information society."

"International Perspectives" brings three Africans together -- notably through the use of the electronic networks -- to discuss a few of the issues and problems confronting the effective use of IT in sub-Saharan Africa (see [3] for some discussion of Arab North Africa). We start with Mayuri Odedra's provocative perspective. A Kenyan who has written extensively on IT in Africa, Odedra helped launch and edit the journal "PC World Africa" before her recent move to the National University in Singapore. Her statement is followed by responses from Mike Lawrie, director of computing at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, on the southern coast of South Africa, and Mark Bennett, director of computing at the University of Zambia in Lusaka.

Intra-African communications still leave much to be desired. Electronic and transportation connections between sub-Saharan countries and their former European colonial metropoles are often better and more frequent than direct connections across the continent. Not surprisingly then, former French, British, Belgian, and Portuguese colonies have relatively little communication across ex-colonial lines. All three of our African writers are from former British colonies; this choice being influenced by my (SEG) e-mail and travel opportunities. Furthermore, space limitations prevent us from doing justice to an entire continent -- even a "lost continent" -- in a single essay. Consequently, our coverage of sub-Saharan Africa outside of the former British empire has necessarily suffered, and reader input is welcomed with the hope of collecting enough suitable material for another article.

Mayuri Odedra: Too much foreign dependence, not enough infrastructure and education Information technology is widely preached as having the power to narrow the gap between the advanced industrial and the less-developed countries (LDCs), as having the capabilities which will allow the LDCs to "leap- frog" development, and as having the potential to help tackle many social and economic problems. Yet few LDCs, especially those in sub- Saharan Africa, have succeeded in exploiting this potential.

Although the number of computers has increased rapidly in some places -- e.g., Zimbabwe's computer population has grown from a handful of mainframes and minis in the 1970s to around 1,000 such machines and 10,000 micros in 1990 -- the process of computerization has not been as successful as it should be in a majority of these countries. The technology has penetrated many sectors, including banking, agriculture, mining, transportation, research, defense, medical services, accounting and communications, but the level of software applications, business practices, and IT-related government policies and regulations, vary greatly from country to country. Several, including Kenya, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe, are making some progress, but others such as Uganda and Tanzania have lagged far behind.

Africa is plagued by extensive under-utilization of equipment and by the failure of major computer-based projects[e.g.,4,5,6,7]. Examples abound of systems that are simply not used because of the lack of secondary equipment, suitable electric power, or training. Hard selling from manufacturers and vendors, the urge to keep up with the latest technology, donations from international assistance organizations (half of the computers in Africa in the early 1980s were "aid-donated"), self- interest, and pressure from computer professionals have all done more to spread computing in Africa than successful use for solving real problems.

In many sub-Saharan African countries, there exists a blind notion that if the more developed countries use the technology and tell us to do so as well, then we should. But no IT policies or strategic buying plans exist which clearly identify the needs that are likely to bring overall benefit to a nation, or which determine what may be achieved with the available resources. Some regulatory policies covering procedures for the acquisition of hardware and software do exist in a few places. These regulations typically mandate centralized acquisition for the public sector and tax private companies and non-government organizations in order to discourage imports or to raise convertible currency for the state. Such taxes range from 0% in Mauritius to over 100% in Kenya. However, a number of countries such as Botswana, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Mauritius have recently taken initiatives to formulate more comprehensive IT policies.

Although IT has been a mixed blessing in different sub-Saharan countries, overall there have been many negative consequences. Scarce foreign currency has been spent on equipment which is not used. The dependency on multinational corporations and expatriate personnel has increased, and socio-cultural conflicts introduced. Moreover, what Africa has experienced for the most part so far is not IT transfer but transplantation, the dumping of boxes without the necessary knowhow (donor agencies have a reputation about this).

Certain prerequisites, such as reliable power supply to operate the computers, a well functioning telephone network to transmit data, foreign currency to import the technology, and computer literate personnel, are necessary for successful use of IT. Such infrastructural elements remain inadequate in many sub-Saharan countries. For instance, with the number of telephones per 1,000 people ranging between 12 and 50 depending on the country, Africa's telecommunications infrastructure is woefully inadequate. Many of the lines that do exist are out of order much of the time (e.g., sometimes large pieces of telephone cable are cut out by thieves and the metals resold).

Sub-Saharan Africa lacks computer skills in all areas, including systems analysis, programming, maintenance and consulting, and at all operational levels from basic use to management. Most countries lack the educational and training facilities needed to help people acquire the proper skills. The few training centers that do exist have not been able to keep up with demand. Only a handful of countries such as Nigeria, Malawi and Zimbabwe have universities that offer computer science degrees. The programs available in the other countries are mainly diplomas and certificates. As a result of lack of skilled and trained personnel, user organizations are forced to hire expatriate staff, who in turn lack knowledge about local organizational cultures and thus design poor systems. Many African governments and organizations are waking up to this situation, but few serious measures have been taken. For instance, the University of Nairobi has developed a BSc major, on paper, but it is yet to be implemented because of the bureaucracy. Moreover, it will not be enough to merely institute courses; books, teachers and equipment are also required but unfortunately have been overlooked.

Unless computer literacy is among managers, poor strategic decisions will continue to be made. The application of computers in sub-Saharan Africa have so far been mainly the result of isolated initiatives without preconceived strategies or plans. The lack of long-term business plans at many organizations results in systems being purchased but not used properly. Managers need to understand that planning is essential before, not after, hardware and software is bought. At present, the most pressing need in sub-Saharan Africa is not new systems, but rather the knowhow to effectively use what is already there.

IT can be of great value in various economic sectors if used for decision-making. But computers are still largely used for routine data processing in sub-Saharan Africa with very little computer-aided decision-making. There is still minimal recognition that information is one of the major determinants of economic and social development. One of the reasons for Africa's underdevelopment is bad or ineffective public sector management because of the lack of or inadequate use of data. Computers are often introduced to overcome some of these problems but few realize that blind computerization does not correct ineffective manual systems.

The sub-Saharan countries, largely because of the influence of foreign suppliers, consultants, and organizations, have come to believe and accept that computer systems can help organizations make more effective use of financial, managerial and socio-economic resources. Furthermore, with the cost of IT falling dramatically, and with systems becoming much easier to use and maintain, some of the prohibitive cost and infrastructural problems are being lessened. So an increasingly affordable and broadly applicable technology is available to play an essential part in the process of development. How should this be done?

Instead of trying to "catch up" with the industrialized world, sub- Saharan LDCs should instead use IT for selected and discriminated applications to bring substantial benefits to their economies and people. The choice of applications must match the priorities set by government and have a high development impact. The automation of the telecommunications system in The Gambia, the Expenditure Monitoring System in Ghana, and the Road Safety and Planning System in Nigeria are a few examples of applications which should be encouraged.

What Africa needs most is the ability to exploit existing products effectively, and this can only be achieved through education. Development is all about people, their needs and their potential, and not with the sophistication of technology.

Mike Lawrie: The rich nations can afford the inefficiencies, the poor ones cannot There is a general theme of frustration in Dr. Odedra's essay, and this must be shared by many IT people who are trying to assist LDCs in Africa. Some of the issues that have been raised apply to so-called developed countries as well, but they can afford the inefficiencies whereas the poorer nations cannot.

It is painful to see an underutilized machine in an LDC because you know that somewhere in that country is someone with a great need who is crying out for a computer. The underutilized resource is in the wrong place and nothing can be done about it. Likewise, seeing a broken fileserver (and the unusable workstations) in an LDC is somehow very different from seeing this in the so-called first world -- because it should take but a little labor and a few parts to fix, but this is unlikely to happen because the skills are not available and there are no parts in the local electronics store. Indeed, there is probably no local electronics store.

The shortage of training is certainly a serious problem, as is lack of experience. The costs of training are horrendously high in hard cash, and the cost of obtaining experience can be crippling. If in the process of obtaining experience, a piece of equipment is broken or a bit of software is erased, it may not be possible to replace -- donated equipment might be too old to have spares readily available, and export laws of the US can make it extremely difficult to obtain a software release.

African social practices may be difficult for a Westerner to understand. As a member of an extended family you must always give assistance to someone who is even remotely related to you, no matter what the cost. This can be viewed as nepotism when it comes to giving "jobs for pals," but in a rural society there is no need for orphanages and the aged are looked after -- not as a burden but as a normal way of life. This is far removed from what happens in most societies that use IT extensively and successfully, so the experts from those societies do not even appreciate that, for example, staff selection in an organization does not necessarily work best by choosing the most technically qualified persons for the job. You might end up with a well-qualified staff, but not necessarily with a working team.

Hard-selling by IT vendors does take place. There is the story about the vendor who took his African client to the USA to demonstrate his product, yet did not let the client find out about the multi-vendor trade show held a few miles away. That this action is accepted as "fair trading" in the Western world is one thing, but it smacks of very poor taste in an LDC.

Dependency on expatriates does occur. There are differing views about this, however. Good African staff leave for the wide world (and maybe some political freedom) and will not go home anyway, so how is the IT function to be staffed? Expatriates in African countries could well be making a sacrifice in living under what to them must be very trying conditions, and certainly some of them do this out of a kindly feeling towards their fellow human beings. Integrating IT into the fabric of an LDC does not happen overnight, and certainly some "expats" are doing a great job of overseeing this process.

There is no one correct way to introduce IT. Governmental planning in itself is not the solution, nor is allowing individuals to develop whatever entrepreneurial skills they have without there being some overall strategy. It is difficult to define the line between on the one hand simply throwing technology at a problem and on the other simply waiting for someone to call for technology to help with a problem. This may well be the essence of the frustration over IT in sub-Saharan Africa. Whatever you do, you get criticized.

Dr. Odedra has made a very relevant point that "development is all about people, their needs and their potential, and not with the sophistication of technology". It will be better for the developed world to adapt to this approach to African IT than to have Africa adapt instantly to the developed world. Africans are going to have to live with the warts of Western IT, but it will be easier all around if the IT vendors and aid agencies in turn take note of her comments.

Mark Bennett: As a tool for growth, IT is as vital to Africa as it is to America or Europe. A problem with writing about IT in Africa is that Africa itself is a very diverse entity. The differences among countries in their economies, levels of education, languages, underlying cultures, and historic associations all have considerable effects on the likely success in the uptake of a new technology such as computing. It is thus with great care that one undertakes analysis of this immensely complex scene and one can only do so from a perspective of limited experience and inevitable subjectivity.

Many of Dr. Odedra's comments are perceptive, despite this necessity to speak to the whole of the African IT condition. And yet there is room for additional perspectives.

She begins by suggesting that IT may have turned from a potential tool for development into something of an obstacle to it. Many of the problems she cites with the introduction of IT would be echoed by others who have worked in the African environment. These include complex purchasing procedures, vendor control of technical direction, dependency on outsiders, poor maintenance procedures, poor training and under- utilization of machines and human potential.

But such criticisms could be equally leveled at other imported technologies such as the motor car: equally liable to break down, creating equal dependence, and even more consumptive of valuable foreign exchange. Furthermore, in some countries up to 80% of vehicles lie idle in garages, gardens and scrapyards for want of spare parts or trained engineers to maintain them. Yet few suggest that such transport technologies are not appropriate; they are essential to the economy despite their many difficulties. IT too should be considered to be going through 'growing pains' in the development process. It needs to be carefully analyzed and considered, but as a tool for growth it is as vital to Africa as it is to America or Europe.

IT is not, and never will be, a way to leap-frog development, an immensely complex process having its roots in educational and infrastructural building which cannot be by-passed.

Some people have therefore questioned whether Africa needs IT in the management of its operations, bearing in mind its rural nature and shortage of capital and foreign exchange. However, every society needs to be an "information society" to a greater or lesser degree. The question remains therefore, whether the current manual systems with their plenteous supplies of manpower are managing to generate that information?

The answer appears to be 'no.' Most LDCs are beset with numerous manpower-related difficulties that may not be fully understood elsewhere. Many stem from lack of education and experience or from environments with no formal systems of control. But difficulties also include poor infrastructure and services (telephones, post, transport, etc.) and lack of a consistently available workforce (for reasons which result from low standards of living). In particular it is common to have a whole skilled middle layer of management missing, e.g., trained accountants and competent administrators.

In the West, primary reasons for the use of IT include the ability to gain access to fast and accurate information, to provide better customer service, and to save costs, which often means reducing manpower. In the South, with its plenteous supply of cheap manpower (a microcomputer in the West may cost one month's wage for a programmer; the same machine in Zambia would cost 6 years wages), justification for reduction of manpower might seem to be almost altogether removed, especially since unemployment is morally undesirable in economies with no social security provisions.

But computers do not always replace manpower per se. Manual systems may not improve however many people are applied to them. Computers instead are being used to transform inefficient systems into efficient ones. This accords with UN thinking that "the analysis and systematization that occurs when computerization takes place be recognized in itself as a most significant contribution to improving management decision-making and resource allocation."[2]

So the computer may substitute for semi-skilled and middle-management staff who are simply not available, or may be part of a stable and reliable system with no clerical counterpart. It reduces the constraints on expansion which may not have resulted from lack of manpower alone, but absence of supervision and control, slowness and lack of firm policies. By this token IT is worth introducing in its own right and may well overcome some of the constraints to accelerated development.

But increasingly today IT in Africa is being used as it should be for the importation and production of vitally needed information. Information represents power in both the economic and political spheres. Yet it has been estimated that at least 90% of data on Africa may reside on databases in the West[9]. If African economies are to improve, they need to have access to the same markets and the same information within the same time frame as more developed countries. Such access is only achievable through IT.

In education this need is perhaps even more manifest. Many universities in Africa suffer from lack of access to the latest books or journals. Academics may be unable to publish internationally accepted papers as a consequence. Travel opportunities become fewer and a sense of isolation easily sets in. (A 20 minute phone call from Zambia to the US can cost a month's wages.)

One important contribution IT can make under these circumstances is the introduction of electronic mail services. The degree to which African telecommunications can support such services varies greatly, but recent signs are encouraging, and this would appear to be one area (with considerable encouragement from "outside") where a leap-frog"approach could be viable.

Computing in Africa may appear presumptive: in areas of drought or malnutrition it is hard to persuade some people that IT is something on which money should be spent. But IT is about information, and information is needed to help cure illness and bring food, bolster production or foster education. Information is needed to allow Africa to find its own ways forward.


[1] Antarctica has no indigenous human population, but its transplanted, transient population (mostly in scientific stations of many nations) must have a higher per capita use of IT than Africa.

[2] Bogod, J. The role of computing in developing countries. British Computer Society, London, 1979.

[3] Goodman, S.E., Green J.D. Computing in the Middle East. Comm. ACM 35, 8 (August 1992), 21-25.

[4] Janczewski, L.J. Factors of information technology implementation in under-developed countries: Example of the West African nations. The Global Issues of Information Technology Management (S. Palvia, P. Palvia and R.M. Zigli, eds.), Idea Group, 1992, 187-212.

[5] Odedra, M. Information technology transfer to developing countries: Cases from Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe. PhD thesis, London School of Economics, September 1990.

[6] Odedra, M. Much more than human resource development for Africa. Information Technology Manpower: Key Issues for Developing Countries (S.C. Bhatnagar, ed.), Tata McGraw-Hill, 1992, 189-200.

[7] Odedra, M. Enforcement of foreign technology on Africa: Its effect on society, culture, and utilization of information technology". Social Citizenship in the Information Age (C. Beardon and D. Whitehouse, eds.), 1992, 143-154.

[8] Who's got the computers? World Monitor (Oct. 1992), 9.

[9] Zwangobani, E. Communications for development: A developing country perspective. Conference Proceedings of Africom '87, Computer Society of Zimbabwe, Harare, 1987.

Follow-ups and Pointers

Correspondence with the African guest co-authors of this column is possible via electronic mail: Mayuri Odedra,; Mike Lawrie,; Mark Bennett,

Mike Lawrie has been providing an invaluable fidonet hub for several countries through the computer center at Rhodes. His "record distance" is to Ethiopia, with regular links to Botswana, Mauritius and Zambia (the only affordable outlet for Bennett). He also has regular uucp links with Zimbabwe and Namibia, and hopes to have another with Mozambique soon. More generally, he points out that IT development in South Africa is extensive, and there is much willingness to co-operate with other sub-Saharan countries.

Most of Africa still has a great need for PCs and ancillary equipment which may be considered outdated elsewhere, e.g., 286s, XTs, or even VT100s. Such equipment is now "junked" in many countries while universities and other institutions in Africa would make grateful use of it. Transport arrangements would be covered by the recipient. Please contact Mark Bennett if you have equipment to pass along.

Readers are encouraged to send comments, suggestions, anecdotes, insightful speculation, raw data, and submissions for guest columns on subjects relating to international aspects of IT. Correspondence should be addressed to:

Sy Goodman
University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721 or or
fax: (602) 621-2433

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar
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