Prospects for Information Technology in Africa

Prospects for Information Technology in Africa

Distr. Limited E/ECA/PSPI.9/9

8 May 1996




Ninth Session of the Conference of African Planners, Statisticians, Population and Information Specialists

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia 11-16 March 1996


1. Access to information and communications technologies is becoming increasingly critical for African community's participation in economic and political life at national, international and global levels. Advances in electronic communication networks have created enormous opportunities for developing countries. A sizable number of African countries have already made progress in their Internet links that have put them on the global connectivity roadmap.

2. Meanwhile, socio-economic problems continue to cripple equal access to information and communication technologies in African countries. The region continue to suffer from life threatening malnutrition, endemic and epidemic diseases, debilitating ignorance, continuous conflicts and bad performing economies that block the aspiration for increased information access. The resource at the disposal of governments are mostly directed to dealing with emergencies with little left for long-term investments in sectors that could trigger socio- economic development. Education, information and communication are some of the sectors that need immediate attention for development in Africa.

3. African governments face two challenges in the information and communication field, namely: provision of access for enhanced participation in economic life and coping with the challenges of rapidly advancing technology. What should African countries do to overcome these rather challenges? Which are the central technologies that bring advancement under current socio-economic situation? Is regional information infrastructure a possibility? This paper will focus on the prospects of information technology in Africa in the wake of the information society.

II. Information technology for emerging information society in Africa

4. Development can be seen as an increase of knowledge and skills and creative potentials that can be applied to improve the quality of life. Research shows that low levels of knowledge and inadequate innovative skills at lower, middle and higher levels have contributed to the continuous failures in African countries in all spheres. Information and knowledge are interrelated. Well informed, knowledgeable and innovative citizens are causes for human centered development. Information technology facilitates the flow of knowledge in modern society. The failure to use information technology is becoming as negative as the refusal to attend school. It is a choice between being left out or benefiting from enormous benefits of information technology.

5. A cluster of technologies is responsible for shaping the way modern information society is emerging. The merging of communications and computing technology with printing and public information using intelligent tools has made the availability of information easier. The advancement did not occur in technology only. A wide variety of information is becoming available through networks for everyone, at anytime, and at any place.

6. The prospects of information technology for Africa are tremendous. Nowadays it is becoming increasingly difficult to run an institution without using computers. Desktop machines are replacing traditional office typewriters. Information technology that can be used, maintained and developed by the indigenous professionals is crucial. Education and training is a key to building indigenous capacity that helps reduce dependence on developed world, to cut under-utilisation of existing equipment and to help to apply technology for solving local complex problems. Though the changes for technology render what is appropriate at one time inadequate at another, African countries should consider effective use of some basic technologies. Four main technologies are very important in information access in developing countries, namely: desktop publishing, CD-ROM, on-line access and Internet connection.

a. Desktop publishing

7. No other region is more in publishing crisis than Africa. The book famine can be compared to the food shortage in the region. Publishing as well as getting what is published is a nightmare. Libraries in schools and public libraries have continued to decline in holdings of up-to-date books, reports and journals. The revolution in desktop publishing is the most promising rescue to the weak publishing industry in Africa.

8. The availability of word processors, desktop publishing packages and tools, text, multimedia and graphics authoring tools, page description languages and document exchange standards makes desktop publishing an outstanding device for improved publishing in developing countries. Desktop publishing has made substantial a revolution in the quality and ease of publications. It saves the resources needed to produce a document, and reduce the turn around time in traditional publishing process. It facilitates making last minute changes controls the whole publishing processing from a desktop.

9. Personal computers have made much easier the production of newspapers, magazines, books, retail flyers, cards etc. by individuals. The equipment to manage a desktop station has undergone though a significant transformation since 1986. The cost of a desktop workstation and software in 1986 was over US $20,000. A powerful desktop workstation can be purchased for less than US$4,000 today.

10. There are indications of desktop publishing revolution in Africa. For example, the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Kenya has demonstrated how a successful scientific publishing can be built with a minimal investment. A small two person computer company in Eritrea was able to produce the national elementary and high school textbooks for the Ministry of Education. These and other projects have shown that it is not the technology that is a bottleneck to publishing industry in Africa. Rather it is training that becomes critical to achieve better standards in quality of scientific and commercial publishing.

b. CD-ROM technology

11. Compact Disk Read Only Memory (CD-ROM) technology emerged from research into the CD technology and uses external devices connected to IBM and Apple desktop computers. It was further developed from a non-standardised optical technology as in integral part of desktop personal computers. In 1985 the cost of a CD-ROM drive was $2000 with about a dozen titles available. In 1992 at a global CD-ROM conference for developing countries in Sudan, very few products were displayed to catch the eyes of the participants. Multi-media CD-ROM disks with full integration of voice, text and motion pictures were just emerging. In 1994 computers arrived with CD-ROM drives as standard equipment and product bundles including software, data bases, entertainment and educational titles. The cost of a quadruple speed drive in 1995 fell to less than $200. CD-ROM titles rolled from about 25 titles in 1985 to an estimated 25,000 in 1995. Portability, mass storage, reliability, capacity to store multi- media and ease of distribution have made CD-ROM technology well adapted to developing countries.

12. The ever dropping cost of drives, discs and CD-ROM titles boosted the availability of CD-ROM to users in developing countries. The development in personal mastering equipment, with tools that cut the traditional steps in pre-mastering and mastering a CD, has created wider opportunities for preserving archives in developing countries with little efforts in digitising them. Wide experience in mastering developing countries data bases has been gained over the last ten years. The International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) and agricultural institutions such as CTA have made considerable efforts to master CD-ROM data bases. The Pan African Development Information System (PADIS) is working on the first Africa based CD-ROM using information from Africa. The increasing speed and power in reading multi-media has facilitated CD-ROM application in education, research, computing, entertainment, delivery of information to users at remote sites or on a network. It has greatly increased access to information. The following table illustrates this trend over the last ten years.

Table 1. CD-ROM industry trends (In US $)

Yearmastering drive costdisk costspeed1985100,0002,00010001X (150k/sec)199030,0001,0007501X (150kb/ sec)199210,0007502502X (300Kb/sec)19953,000 (personal mastering)200204X, 6X (600-900Kb/sec) 13. Increasing demands for mass storage has made CD-ROM a suitable technology for largely text based or multi-media releases. At 650 Mbyte capacity a CD-ROM disk can store about 72 minutes of music or 30 minute compressed motion video or an entire encyclopedia. Research has already shown the ability to store a whole video on a single disc. Technical standards groups for data compression such as Joint Photographic Expert Group (JEPG), Moving-image Photographic Expert Group (MPEG, and MPEG-2 for sound) and the Multimedia PC (MPC1 and MPC2) have been critical in this trend.

14. Combined with the scanning technology and networking, CD-ROM's potential for production and distribution of public archives is enormous. Availability of user friendly software and multi-media will make CD-ROM technology a powerful tool for distribution of information. Multi-media has expanded the opportunities for increased availability of data bases on CD-ROM ranging from chemical abstracts, medicine, population information, agriculture etc. Its potential for making information available without connect charges and time limit, makes it suitable technology to African information access problems. The following constitute the major potentials for CD-ROM in Africa:

CD-ROM national archives: CD-ROM offers opportunities for making African national heritage, culture, tourist attractions and all forms of structured information
widely available. It helps to reduce Africa's dependence on the developed world both
for technology and its own information.

CD-ROM network kiosks : The concept of communications access through "teleshops"
can be extended to information kiosks where users can access data and useful
information locally. The average information user in Africa will be unable to afford
on-line access and full Internet connection due to limitations in bandwidth and costs.
Coupled with low cost networking CD-ROM promises the distribution of information
to remote areas in Africa.

Universities and research centre public catalogues: High cost and non- availability of
public access catalogues in universities can be altered through the use of CD-ROM.
Users that access on-line public access catalogues locally can request further searches
via electronic mail. Libraries in developed world have already integrated CD-ROM
into Local Area Networks. Substantial cost savings have been achieved by using CD-
ROM for public access catalogues.

15. A few problems continue to block the potential of CD-ROM technology in Africa. The major problems will be lack of knowledge of what is available in CD-ROM format, non- availability of relevant information to Africa and shortage of resources to acquire the technology. Language barriers, licensing agreement and network restrictions will also contribute to the low diffusion of CD-ROM technology in the region.

16. Training in use of CD-ROM technology should not be underestimated. Users should get training in areas such as CD-ROM data base preparation for personal mastering, troubleshooting, CD-ROM searches, CD-ROM networking and information access. Basic computer training in operating systems makes usage of CD-ROM technology for information exchange, access, download and upload easier. Networking of CD-ROM needs a thorough knowledge of Local Area Networking technology and knowledge on accessing global information resources over the Internet.

c. on-line access

17. On-line service is an electronic link that helps to access structured information. It has been in existence before CD-ROM technology. In developed world it is an important element of everyday life. Dial-up services, X.25 links and Internet connections are used to make access to a wide range of data bases provided by on-line service providers. Access to on-line flight information, weather data, inventory, catalogues and wide range of structured information across various sectors and disciplines is crucial to institutions and individuals.

18. The most significant feature of on-line services is the provision of structured information. On-line service providers make considerable efforts to provide qualitative and up-to-date structured data on various subjects. Using selected keywords, users can make simple Boolean searches to browse through thousands of structured records.

19. In addition to commercial structured information there has been a considerable development in library catalogues and unstructured global information on the Internet. Browsing and indexing tools have made access to Internet information resources easier. They have also made greater impact on commercial service providers. The major developments that have advanced on-line services during the last decade include:
- growth of the Internet - availability of on-line catalogues through Campus Wide
Information Systems - the reduced cost in making data available on CD-ROM - availability of free accessible data through Wide Area
Information Servers

20. Recent advances in networking have forced commercial service providers to connect to the Internet. This has made access easier and reduced the cost of communications over networks. Subscribers are charged only for on-line access and printing. The availability of public access catalogues including access to Library of Congress on the Internet has created a wide range of alternatives for users of commercial on-line systems.

21. The growth of the Internet has also forced service providers to consider a universal standard to contend with growing incompatibily in distributed data bases. Different software, fields and platforms have created incompatible data bases and made transfer from one format to another difficult. The development of the Z39.50 protocol is one of the steps towards breaking the compatibility dilemma. Z39.50 aims at defining the mechanism for integrating syntax and query formats of different data bases on the network. Most service providers have already taken steps to provide interfaces to the Z39.50 format.

22. Universities that have discovered the enormous benefits of access to information have raced towards building Campus Wide Information Systems that provide access to local information including On-line Public Access Catalogues. This has made universal sharing of on-line information easier and prompted increases in inter-library loans. Campus Wide Information Systems have brought on-line documents and ways to access campus computing resources together under a single umbrella. CWIS has also made on-line access manageable and cost effective.

23. The availability of Wide Area Information Servers (WAIS) that provide free access to indices of thousands of texts, software, research papers and texts have created another alternative option to search for information on the Internet. WAIS provide search and retrieval tools synonymous with the book index. A number of on-line service providers have also exploited the developments in CD-ROM technology. Most commercial data bases are available on CD-ROM format.

24. The use of on-line access in developing countries is subject to the availability of resources. The high telecommunication tariffs and unreliable telecommunications infrastructure makes online access to commercial data bases impractical. Connectivity to the Internet will facilitate access to on-line commercial and free data bases.

d. Internet connections

25. Electronic networking is a technique to link information users using computers and communication channels. The role of computers in cutting the time needed for processing and exchange of information is fundamental. Communication channels reduce the distance between users. While this concept of networking is straight forward, it is also beset by some problems. With the recent wide media coverage of networking, networking has become a source of widey confusion. PT&Ts remain the major political bottleneck towards universal access which has to be overcome if univeral access is to be achieved. Networking is the result of efforts of computer technologists, communication authorities, information users and service providers.

26. During the last two decades, Local Area Networks, connecting users at the same location, and Wide Area Networks, linking users thousands of miles apart, have been integrated with intelligent global electronic networks that form today's superhighway. The Internet (TCP/IP) protocol was developed in the military environment in the United States to a global standard integrating Local Area Networks and distributed Wide Area Networks. It has prompted users, governments and developers towards universal access to information. The willingness of nations, developers and individual users to co-operate, share expertise and knowledge, and the continued rapid changes of technology have made networking more affordable and achievable. Existing Internet tools have already shown the possibility of achieving the following:

- users can connect to networks without limitation of distance, time, age, political or
racial orientation. Institutions can access a wide variety of information on demand.
The process of building a virtual global library is underway.

- any brand of computers can be used to access data on networks. The solutions to

standard and compatibility problems take place at technical levels.

- private and public communications including wider discussions can be undertaken
at convenience. Encryption makes private communications (in voice, text or graphics) safe.

- one interface is sufficient to browse and exchange information in various format.
The World Wide Web tools make this is a near possibility. It is possible to cruise and browse through endless global information resources from a single software. There are various indexing tools that can help users to use global data bases and libraries regardless of format.

- users can make real time communications both in the form of voice communication
(chatting over the Internet) and synchronised messaging (where users at distance interact using their computer screens)

- users can publish on the network. Networking promises a two way highway where
the users become not only passive recipients or consumers of information but also information providers. This allows life long learning through interaction. Networking will become more than access. It will become an empowering tool.

27. These promises have also generated significant problems. Security, privacy, cultural erosion, equity of access, etc. are at the top of the list. Developing countries will continue to suffer from low access to networking technology. The gap will widen not as the result of lack of technical solutions but due to infrastructural and political problems. This is nowhere more true than in Africa, where socio-economic and political problems continue to set back the use of information technology.

28. Although there is now growing recognition of the far-reaching impact of telecommunications and networking on the economies of African countries, a number of problems restrict its diffusion through public institutions. Information users in Africa have the lowest literacy levels. More than half of Africa's population is illiterate. Over half of those literate can not gather information for problem solving. Most users struggle with everyday life. The availability of hundreds of local languages without interface to global knowledge resources has made access to information more difficult. The near absence of information seeking culture has continued to impede progress towards achieving universal access. Shortage of financial and human resources, lack of knowledge on the availability of potential tools, low level telecommunications infrastructure, and rapid changes in technology are all affecting acting the diffusion of networking technology.

29. Information networks are not a privilege for a few. With appropriate low cost tools users in the most remote places can benefit from access to networks. Emerging technologies put in place during the last five years are encouraging changes in the structure of information flow in Africa. The reducing gap between researchers in Africa locally and internationally means qualitative research and better problem solving. Access facilitates a diffusion of quality education. Case studies in some African countries have shown the enormous potential of networking for socio-economic development. Grassroot networks have now connected thousands of users from Africa to the global information resources.

30. There are five types of service providers in Africa using three basic technologies: Fido, UUCP and TCP/IP. The five types of service providers are:

FidoNet: Fido is a public phone based store and forward network which connects users with microcomputers. Fido has proved efficient over poor telecommunications lines. Its ease of implementation and ability to work over poor telephone lines have facilitated the wide spread of Fido technology in Africa.

Healthnet: Healthnet is a Fido based systempan that uses radio technology instead of public phone lines. Healthnet users connect to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites using packet radio technology. The satellite passes within the ranges of two to four times a day for about fifteen minutes at which time automatic uplink and downlink is done for message transfer. Healthnet, however has remained specific to the health sector. SatelLife, the operator of Healthnet, has set up over 15 ground stations (sites) in Africa. Though connections are free, Healthnet implementation using Low Earth Orbit satellites has became obsolete due to low bandwidth and difficult technology. SatelLife is considering other alternatives, such as public phones and a combination of LEO and telecommunications lines, for improving access to the health community.

UUCP: UUCP is store and forward technology being implemented using Unix systems. Packet switching (X.25) and/or public phone lines are used to make scheduled connections between Unix hosts. UUCP is spreading throughout West Africa due to the availability of packet switching networks in most French speaking countries and support from the French based RIO-ORSTOM project.

Co-operative TCP/IP: Co-operative TCP/IP are full Internet connections implemented through co-operative institutions, such as universities, to provide access to local users. Profit making is not the main goal of co-operative TCP/IP links. Charges are set to cover costs of operation and expansion.

Commercial TCP/IP: Commercial TCP/IP is full Internet connection for profit. In Africa it is generally operated by private computer or telecom companies. In Zambia it has been set up through a joint venture between the University and a small private company known as ZamNet.

The following table shows the distribution in Africa of service providers based on the above techniques.

Table II. African connectivity

Technology% of African countries coveredCountries coveredFidoNet33 %Algeria, Angola, Cote d'Ivoire, Cameroon, Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Uganda Healthnet27%Burkina Faso, Botswana, Cameroon, Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Sudan, South Africa, Uganda Uucp32%Burkina Faso, Botswana, Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Cameroon, Ghana, Guinea, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritius, Mozambique,Namibia, Niger, Senegal, Nigeria, Reunion, Togo, Zimbabwe Cooperative Internet16%Algeria, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Namibia, Mozambique, Senegal, South Africa, Tunisia, Zimbabwe Commercial Internet7%Ghana, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia

No connection 32%Burundi, Benin, Central African Republic, Cape Verde, Comoros, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Libya, Mauritania, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Somalia, Zaire

31. Apart from socio-economic and political difficulties that have left many countries unconnected, the underdevelopment of the telecommunication infrastructure remains the major cause of access in the region. Data shows that telecommunications diffusion in Africa is the weakest in the world with the least tele-density. ITU reports indicate that the average telephones per 100 people in Africa was 1.6 in 1993. With an ever growing population the tele-density remains stagnant even if marginal increases in main telephone lines are achieved in some countries. Some countries have showed a negative growth rate in telecommunications density due to socio-economic problems, population growth, foreign debt, fall off in export earning and the need to import most telecommunications equipment. Due to the small size of local telecommunications markets and policies, there are few private foreign investors in the telecommunications sector.

32. Telecom policies vary considerably in Africa. The tariff is several fold of that of the developed world. Telecom policies have become not only rigid but also have evolved as a perceived threat to socio-economic development. Even under connection queues for three to four years in some countries in Africa and telecom profitability in very high margin, the inadequate policies and incompetence of telecommunications management in most countries blocks achievement of the right to communicate, socio-economic development and universal access.

33. The region has continued to lag behind in the provision of business communication support such as packet switching and leased line and other value added services. At the end of 1994 South Africa and Morocco were the only countries that provided ISDN services. Existing leased lines are limited in size and bandwidth and mostly used by airlines, banks and international organisations. The following table shows the situation in Africa in the use of telecommunications technology.

Table III. The bandwidth situation in Africa Bandwidth Major functionsSpeedApplicationsAvailability in AfricaNarrow band Voicevoice grade2400bps- 9600bpstext transfer and voiceavailable in most African countriesNarrow band datavoice and switched network (packet switching) data networks9.6Kbps - 56Kbpsvector graphics and high volume of text, low end networking on Internet10 - 20% of African countriesWidebandprivate and Public data networks1.2- 45 Mbits/seco ns high grade images, digital audio, clips, hypertext and low grade multi-mediaSouth Africa and Morocco onlyBoardbandPublic broadband networks51M - 630+M/bi ts per secondhigh grade multi-media, full motion video and sound Unavailable 34. This indicates how African telecom infrastructure lags behind the rest of the world and has become the major cause of limitation of access to the global information superhighway. After the enormous success of Internet over the last ten years and the rapid changes in the global connectivity map, a number of African countries have remained unchanged. A wide range of efforts are required by telecom operators, governments, service providers the international community to change not only the colour of the connectivity map of Africa but also to harness information technology for economic development.

III. Prospects

35. The potential of information technology in development activities that improve the quality of life, efficiency of social and economic organisation and its cohesion is evident. African countries need information and communication policy adjustment to share the promises of the rapid changes in information technology. Information policy adjustment involves appreciation of the significance of information technology in life long learning, trade, employment, accountability and better management of resources and environment. Information technology, properly designed, can be deployed even in regions that lack adequate water, food and power. IT represents the biggest chances for major leapfrog in development, growth and poverty alleviation if African countries can fulfill necessary conditions for networking, agility, learning and reliability.

36. Modern use of information technology requires aggressive activities in education21. Information technology and education have dual impact on each other. Information technology has a greater impact on education in the development of new concepts, improving resources sharing and advancing research. Information technology education is the main solution for building indigenous capacity in Africa.

37. Governments should play active roles in diffusing the above technologies to colleges, universities and schools. The use of Internet is a boost to graduate research in Africa. Connectivity helps to open the window to global knowledge for Africa. In addition to deploying information technology in education, governments should promote the use of information technology in the public communication media, including printed and audio-visual media, telecommunication and postal services. Information systems in business, finance, health, legal, science and technology should also be encouraged to use appropriate information technology.

38. Governments should develop better policies for equitable access to Information Technology. The need to provide equitable access should not undercut connection of information delivery agencies, business and private institutions to high bandwidth networks. Those "ready to ride" should be allowed to surf on global information networks. Appropriate information and communication policies are the basis for building regional information infrastructure for socio-economic development.

From: Date: Sat, 11 May 96 11:01:03 +0000 Subject: padis6 Message-ID: <>

Back to document index

Editor: Dr. Ali B. Ali-Dinar, Ph.D
Previous Menu Home Page What's New Search Country Specific