Name ID 1206

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The Economist
Extract Date: 2000 Sep 9

Tapping into Africa

AN ETHIOPIAN touts goats, Somalis in Kenya sell henna and incense, a censored Liberian radio station defies the government and a Namibian invites offers for a taxi licence. All do so on the Internet. Is Africa getting online? Not really: of some 360m Internet users round the world, only 3.1m are thought to be in Africa, and most of them are either in South Africa or north of the Sahara. Nigeria probably has 100,000 users; Kenya, a relatively prosperous country, has even fewer. But access is spreading fast, perhaps even tripling over the course of last year. On August 28th, Somalia became the latest African country to offer local access to the Internet, and for the first time surfers can use the net in Swahili.

The UN has put its faith in the Internet as a means for poor countries to leapfrog stages of development. The secretary-general�s millennium report, written for the summit in New York, speaks of building 'digital bridges'. The UN�s own plans for bridge-building include a corps of volunteers to teach people in developing countries how to use computers, and a health network to provide hospitals and clinics with up-to-date medical information.

The Internet could also be a way round one of Africa�s greatest weaknesses, its feeble infrastructure. Poor roads, uncertain power supplies, an unreliable postal system and bad telephone lines (there are as many telephones in Tokyo as in all of Africa, says the UN report), add to Africa�s economic and political woes. Without easy access to information, farmers cannot know what price is fair for their goods, traders have no alternative to buying imports from local sources, doctors rely on ancient technology, voters can make no informed choices.

The Internet could change things. Just as battery-powered and wind-up radios brought much of Africa into contact with the outside world, so can computers make that contact richer. And cheaper: e-mailing a 40-page document from Madagascar to C�te d�Ivoire costs 20 cents, faxing it about $45, and sending it by courier $75. More and more African newspapers now post online editions, and use foreign news found on the Internet.

Most of the initiative, and investment, is expected to come from private companies and individuals. A new 32,000km (20,000-mile) undersea fibre-optic cable system, which will form a ring of connections around the continent, is due to open in two years. Internet caf�s have been springing up in African cities wherever people have the money to use them. The founder of a cyber caf� in Zanzibar provides websites for government officials, hotels and banks, and collects payments from drop-in users. He also wants to change people�s lives by putting the Internet, free, in local schools.

On a larger scale, an East African company, Africa Online, based in Nairobi, works in eight countries. One of its aims is to provide Internet connections for people without their own telephones or computers. Using e-touch technology (a simple way to operate e-mail), it wants to put terminals in post offices throughout the region. Last month the company announced a deal with Barclays Africa to open a string of Internet centres. Although the Internet cannot help the truly poor, who look for pencils, not computers, it may well speed the pace of change.

Extract ID: 1523