Notes from Connecting Rural Communities Africa Forum 2012
There are many hot topics in African tech right now, most notably app development and high-speed mobile access. However, the bread and butter of African Internet access remains in rural areas. After all, the majority population of most African nations resides away from the cities that drive much of the online innovation. Fortuitously, international organizations such as CTO, an international development partnership between governments, business and civil society organizations. CTO, for example, provides the international community with effective means to help bridge the digital divide and achieve social and economic development. For the past seven years, CTO has sponsored an annual rural development conference.
Held last week in Sierra Leone, the 7th annual Connecting Rural Communities (CRC) Africa Forum aimed to address how to create economically viable rural networks. African companies shared experiences with overseas experts. Much emphasis was given to local issues in Sierra Leone.
Sierra Express Media recorded the high level themes that were to be discussed at the event:
- how to catalyze Internet and broadband used in rural areas
- policy and regulatory tools for stimulating rural demand and supply
- context-appropriate devices and infrastructure
- how to measure and understand the socio-economic impact of rural ICT development
Eventually, CTO will publish a thorough report of the three-day long event. In the meantime, Olusegun Abolaji Ogundeji, writing for Computerworld West Africa, has compiled an excellent summary of the forum. Highlights include how local operators face the challenges surrounding the deployment of rural connectivity. A shortage of electricity and high taxes by the government were cited as major hurdles to long term success.
Especially poignant were the comments from Adel Taher, the head of MDIC (the management company that recently took over the operations of Sierratel):
Twenty of the 54 African countries are already connected to fiber-optic cables but they are still charging monopoly rates, which make the objective of spreading broadband access to rural areas unachievable”
Such a statement is arguably true; wholesale broadband prices are decreasing in the countries with immediate international fibre capacity, but the reductions cannot be entirely associated with a cable. Hopefully this sentiment by Mr. Taher is not a precursor for artificially high access rates once the ACE cable goes live in Sierra Leone later in 2012.
In addition, vendors, eager to find new business in rural markets, cited alternatives to the upcoming ACE cable (ie. satellite networks, Wi-Fi-based backhaul technology, and tower-sharing).
At the end of the day, however, fibre is the most durable option. But it comes with trade-offs. Fibre takes longer to deploy than a wireless (or satellite) service. Plus, costs are generally higher and financing isn’t necessarily easy.
Also worth noting is that the number of telecoms towers in Africa is expected to double over the next five years from 75,000 to 150,000.
Past CRC Africa Forums include:
2006 – Abuja, Nigeria
2007 – Nairobi, Kenya (presentations)
2008 – Lilongwe, Malawi (presentations)
2009 – Livingstone, Zambia
2010 – Accra, Ghana
2011 – Dar es Salaam, Tanzania