Where is Africa in the expanding trajectories of the Internet?
Crafting the article’s title as a question is both rhetorical and substantive. But the danger is that as a rhetorical question, it is assuming a lot. Of course, everyone, at a superficial level, knows that the Internet is a dynamic technological innovation that has become very significant to the ways we imagine our contemporary world today. The Internet makes a lot of things possible. For instance, at the entrepreneurial level, the Internet is critical to the networking of business ideas in a manner that is not limited by space and time. My business proposal, for instance, can be forwarded to a collaborator in Germany who in turn can ask for its assessment in Switzerland, and funding for the proposal can be sought in the United States, all without any of us having any physical contact. The Internet has therefore become an electronic communication highway that generates interdependence while providing transformational possibilities. There is no doubt that the development of the Internet has transformed humanity’s potentials to overcome its limitations. But however significant this understanding is, it is still superficial as to the full extent of the possibilities that the Internet possesses, especially for development purposes at a continental level like Africa and its many underdeveloped states.
At a distinctly significant Roundtable coming up between May 2-4, 2017, a critical segment of the African academic community as well as a critical mass of Internet practitioners will be converging at Ibadan, under a collaborative effort between Google and the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP), to deliberate on the crucial relationship between governance, Internet research and Internet policy to Africa’s development efforts in the twenty first century. At least, one objective is to initiate a discourse that goes beyond a surface appreciation of the potentialities of the Internet to exploring the deeper capacities it possesses for transforming Africa into a strong developmental continent with formidable and thriving digital economies.
The starting point of this conference is to tease out how the Internet and the lack of an effective Internet policy complicate Africa’s development vision and efforts. The theme of the Roundtable itself foregrounds a compelling development narrative: “Strengthening Internet Policy through Theoretically Grounded Research.”
Africa’s development impasse is a protracted complexity that has so many hierarchies of difficulties. One of the most fundamental is the inability of the continent to convert plausible development ideas and paradigms to transformational policy that could be the springboard for the empowerment of Africans. From the Lagos Plan of Action to NEPAD, there have been myriads of development agenda and initiatives that all failed to significantly transform Africa’s development predicament. The reigning social science concept today is the idea of a developmental state. This is the idea of a state that is able to take the burden of macroeconomic and developmental initiatives driven by its critical regulation of the crucial factors of development.
Factor into this complex underdevelopment of Africa’s development potentials the lack of a functional continental Internet policy that can backstop Africa’s, and especially national development efforts. As a former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Communication Technology, I came face to face with the implications of this critical policy absence, together with so many others. There are therefore specificities to the Internet issues that go beyond the appreciation of its significance for international, transnational and global interdependence and interaction. The fundamental issue derives from what to make of the Internet and how to deploy its relevance for national and continental development purposes. For Africa, the challenges of converting the Internet into a development dynamics are legion. Consider the following. First, there is the challenge of inclusiveness and universal service that give the Internet the capability of enfolding the whole of humanity. But the usual underdevelopment issue rears its head with the Internet in Africa. Africa has a notoriously low internet penetration rate of 16 per cent. The continent therefore remains in a dangerous development status as large swathes of the continent remains unconnected/under-connected to the internet. 16 per cent Internet penetration level is definitely insufficient to instigate development planning!
Internet inclusiveness ties in automatically with the problem of affordability. Technology opens up efficiencies and opportunities that development policies can piggyback on to resolve the thorny challenges of, say, poverty reduction and disease control while improving quality of life and service delivery. However, since technology itself does not come cheap, those very portions of the populace who are in dire need of the Internet to access development initiatives are the very ones that will be left out of it. The 16 per cent Internet penetration level simply means that only 15 out of every 100 Africans can access the Internet.
This is even more critical when entrepreneurial creativity and SMEs are constantly being stifled by their inability to afford the cost of connection. A larger challenge comes from the lack of local content that comes from the government’s capacity to take ownership of the Internet in its own domains. This challenge is a step higher than that of inclusiveness. If the problem of inclusiveness is overcome, then there comes that of owning the contents of the Internet and deploying them for development purposes. The evolving digital economy is a prime option for Africa to creatively utilise.
On the contrary, however, most of the local content available on African networks are borrowed with very little customisation for the African environment. This dismal situation sends a dangerous signal of an impending digital colonisation of the African Internet presence.
Olaopa is executive vice-chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP).