African countries suffer from 17 years "digital lag"

Some of the poorest countries in the world are suffering from a “digital lag” of 17 years, according to a UN report.

And companies need to work with governments to get things moving.

Professor Richard Heeks of the University of Manchester, who contributed extensively to the 2010 Information Economy Report from the UN Conference on Trade and Development, (UNCTAD) warned: “Even with current high growth rates, our calculations show that it will be 2019 before the poorest countries achieve the internet usage rates reached by the richest countries in 2002.

“That’s a ‘digital lag’ of 17 years so governments and private firms must work together to improve access.

“We have to change our view of the world’s poor from one that sees them as passive consumers of ICTs, to one that sees them as producers of and innovators with the technology.

“This will mean creating an environment that recognises and scales up the technology adaptations and innovations, and the new technology-based business models, that are already arising within poor communities.”

Speaking to TechEye at the launch of the report, Professor Heeks, who works at Manchester’s Centre for Development Informatics, added: “The private sector has shown that this is the way that digital technology is rolling out. The private sector has understood that poorer people will pay money for this technology.

“These big companies are going in because they see the potential that’s there. They stand to make a lot of money.”

He said things were moving fast in some developing countries.

He added: “It’s a fantastically exciting area to be working in. Places like Ghana, South Africa and Kenya all have real potential to grow, especially, for some, when broadband arrives.”

Professor Heeks said the mobile phone market was growing at 50 percent or more in some African countries, with 3G and broadband likely to be rolled out at a slightly slower rate.

He added: “The poor will spend up to 75% of their disposable income on running a mobile.”

The UN report, launched at the University of Manchester, forecast that technology was likely to become a key tool for reducing global poverty.

However, it warned that problems remained, with half the rural population in the poorest countries still living outside the range of mobile phone signals.

It also pointed out that less than one in ten microenterprises in developing countries currently used the web – and those in the least developed countries were 600 times less likely to be a broadband user than those in developed countries.

The report followed an announcement last month from IBM that it was teaming up with Bharti Airtel to manage the computing technology and services behind the Indian company’s mobile communications network in 16 African countries.

In a statement, IBM said the agreement, expected to be finalised by the end of the year, would see the company “deploy and manage state-of-the-art information technology infrastructure and applications to support Bharti Airtel’s goal of bringing affordable and innovative mobile services to remote locations in Africa.”

IBM also worked with Bharti Airtel on its entire Indian network.

Unfortunately, IBM has been very reluctant to comment further on the subject.

When TechEye asked for a chat about IBM’s work in developing countries, we were told there wasn’t anyone available to talk on that area at the moment. And they didn’t know when anyone would be available.

The whole world seems to be in agreement on the huge potential for mobile phone and internet growth in developing countries, and also that the populations of these countries desperately need these technologies to drag themselves out of poverty. But not all is rosy in this garden.

We recently reported how cut throat market conditions plus a weary bunch of mobile operators were forcing the network equipment vendors in India to slash their prices.

European vendors were said to be squeezing the network deal margins, with some vendors undercutting or offering freebies to keep operators as customers.

The Guardian has also been investigating the subject, reporting how the governments of Rwanda and Kenya are investing huge amounts in IT infrastructure – with a huge sense of “anticipation and expectation” in both countries.

But the paper noted that no-one really knew if the “East African gamble on IT and outsourcing” would pay off.