Disconnected Continent: The Difficulties of the Internet in Africa. (World in Review)

By Kowalczykowski, Magda | Harvard International Review, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Disconnected Continent: The Difficulties of the Internet in Africa. (World in Review)


Kowalczykowski, Magda, Harvard International Review


While the Internet has become an integral part of the Western world, it has only just arrived in Africa. In the United States and northern Europe, an average of one out of three people uses the Internet. In Africa, as in much of the developing world, Internet usage rates below one percent are the norm. Fortunately, this situation is changing rapidly, as initiatives by the United Nations and private corporations attempt to bridge the global digital divide.

According to official statistics, the future of connectivity in African countries is bright. The number of telephone lines is growing at a rate of 10 percent per year, and all of the main lines in Botswana and Rwanda are digital, compared to just under half of all lines in the United States. Cellular phone service, limited to six African countries a decade ago, is available in 42 countries today. Columbia Technology's Africa-One project is expected to complete an optical fiber network for the entire continent this year at a cost of US$1.6 billion.

Support from other private corporations looks promising as well. In cooperation with the Harvard Center for International Development, commercial technology giants such as Sun Microsystems, AOL-Time Warner, and Hewlett-Packard have pledged US$10 million over the next two years toward technology designed to improve the quality of life in 12 developing nations. With figures like these, it is easy to gloss over the real problems in the implementation of this vast network.

WorldTeacher: Namibia

In July 2001, I stepped into a fully equipped computer lab at the teacher resource center in Ongwediva, northern Namibia, beginning my part in a project to help spread computer and Internet literacy to the developing world as a WorldTeach volunteer. With video cameras, CD burners, and high-speed connections, the lab could easily have been in the United States. Although this teacher resource center in Ongwediva is state-of-the-art, it must serve the technological needs of all of northern Namibia. Because of large distances between towns, a lack of vehicles, and limited awareness, many teachers do not exploit this resource to the fullest extent possible.

WorldTeach is designed to eliminate these problems. The 16-teacher contingency traveled to Namibia to teach computer and Internet literacy to students at various primary and secondary schools throughout the country An experiment of sorts, it was the first time that a program of this magnitude had been implemented in the developing world. A partnership with Schoolnet, an England-based company that equips schools with computers and technical support, made the project possible: Schoolnet provided the network, WorldTeach provided the teachers. After a period of training, each WorldTeacher was sent to a Schoolnet-sponsored site where he or she gave lessons on computer and Internet use.

Various development reports and meetings in the past few years have pointed to the explosive potential of information technology in Africa. Statistics on the increasing numbers of telephone lines, Internet Service Providers, and Internet connections have shed light on the vast potential of expanding markets and opportunities in this sector. Expectations are not reality, however. From my viewpoint on the ground in Namibia, I found the actual situation to be much more complex than the large companies and idealistic groups wishing to help these countries would like to pretend.

The enormous project at hand faces many glitches that must be smoothed out before the Internet can become a regular and integral part of the Namibian culture. One difficulty has been financial. Although the first school I visited in Edundja had a special budget allotted for the use of the Internet, it simply was not enough to sustain the program after I had left. I was there five days a week for three weeks, leaving the dial-up connections on all day in the hopes of getting as many students as possible to explore cyberspace. …

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