Unlocking the potential

Ahead of the Broadband Middle and East and Africa conference, taking place on the 25-27th March 2012 at the Westin Mina Seyahi Beach Resort and Marina, in Dubai, UAE, we speak to the UN Special Advisor for Africa, High Representative Cheick Sidi Diarra.

While Europe and the USA are struggling to come to terms with the pressures of the recent global financial downturn, for the poorest nations on the planet, such conditions have been ongoing and existential. As a response to this, back in 2000 the UN established the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), with the bold aim of eradicating poverty, improving education and reducing child mortality across the world.

Following a call from the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to step-up its effort to meet these goals, the ITU and UNESCO set up the Broadband Commission for Digital Development in October 2011, with ensuring that broadband connectivity is high up on the international policy agendas as one of its main aims.

UN High Representative Cheick Sidi Diarra’s role is to improve the lot for the world’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs), the Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States. Diarra fully understands that providing fast and reliable broadband internet connectivity is absolutely crucial to achieving the MDGs.

“Broadband and ICTs (Information Communication & Technology) in general is seen by the UN as one of the major enablers to the attainment of Millennium Development Goals, because of the diverse applications they can have on the lives of people”, Diarra told “We believe that by using ICTs could be one of the major game changers. This is why I am participating to this Broadband Commission.”

But would a broadband line really help improve the lives of say, a sugar cane or coffee grower in Africa?  Diarra believes it will actually make all the difference.

“If you take the case of a coffee grower, the first stage would be for him to access information related to weather: how best to take advantage of weather conditions to grow better coffee.” This is one example of how acquiring knowledge would enable him to increase the quality his product that he could sell it at a higher price on the market, Diarra explains. “[Another] application for a coffee grower would be to look through the internet to access the international and domestic market to have an idea about the coffee prices. So there are a lot of applications sectors for different sectors of intervention. It’s true for all aspects of the economic development and it’s also true for different aspects of our social lives… health applications, education applications and sharing information in general. Sharing information is something that empowers people in their daily activities.”

With the lack of telecoms infrastructure in many parts of Africa, mobile connections have been hugely influential in providing what connectivity there is, and Diarra doesn’t see that as changing any time soon. “I think that the trend currently in the least developed countries and African countries has been to make quick progress in accessing mobile telephony. It’s the way they… increased the tele-density in those countries from one per cent (one line per one hundred inhabitants) in 2001, to almost 28 per cent in 2009. Now it’s estimated that around 30 per cent of the population in LDCs has access to cellular subscription.”

Fixed lines are still important in his view, though. “The heavy infrastructure that is necessary to colonisation is much easier to do through a mobile telephony system. But don’t get me wrong. I do believe that internet and landline access is also necessary, but the only problem is the level of penetration of landlines is very low – just two per cent currently in these countries.”

Whether fixed-line or mobile, what’s clearly needed is greater investment in connectivity. Diarra points out that it has been proven by the World Bank that a ten per cent increase in broadband can increase economic growth by a significant 1.4 per cent.

The question is how that kind of investment can be encouraged, though. “One of the recommendations of the Broadband Commission is to encourage countries to improve their business environment to be able to attract investment,” says Diarra and they should be doing this by creating regulatory and legal frameworks that incentivise private investment.

It’s also a market ripe with potential making it a no-brainer for the savvy investor, as long as the conditions to do business are right. “The population of the LDCs is around 1 billion inhabitants – around one seventh of the world’s population – so this is a big market. If you have a safe environment and a potential market where you can develop your product, the chances are that it will attract private investors.”

There are caveats though, as Diarra points out: “Some areas that might not be of interest to the private investors because of the low rates of return are the rural areas and very low density population areas. In those areas I believe the state will have to intervene.” So, not really all that different from any country in Europe or the US then, it seems.

In terms of practicalities, the emphasis will be on persuading governments to implement policies in an integrated manner, and not as an afterthought. “I believe that one major thing that is to be done is that all these countries take on board specific policy measures related to broadband that is part and parcel of overall development – not a stand-alone policy, but part of an integrated approach developing vision and strategy. We are going to work during the course of the year to ensure that that the LDCs, African and landlocked countries continue to mainstream ICT and broadband policies as one of their pillars of economic development.”

The aim, Diarra says, is to reach the targets established in the recent Broadband Commission report that said that by 2015 internet user penetration should reach 60 per cent worldwide, 50 per cent in the developing world and 15 per cent in the LDCs.  He’s well aware that there will be serious challenges on the way to achieve this though. “We have political issues, wars and conflicts that are not very friendly to attracting business and investment.”

Even if these can be bypassed another issue is how to co-ordinate the process, which Diarra says has previously created a situation where equipment is installed that actually turns out to be incompatible with existing kit. “Investors sometimes put in equipment that does not interoperate well, overlaps, and doesn’t function together, making it effectively useless. We need a more coordinated and harmonised approach for dealing on the ground with dealing with the broadband.”

Despite the challenges Diarra is confident that the ambitious targets of the Broadband Commission can be achieved and he points towards success stories in Africa. “We have seen it in countries such like Rwanda that were really struggling, become a kind of hub for development for ICTs, not only in the country but for the whole eastern African sub-region. And if you take the case of South Africa, which is the most advanced on the continent, knowledge is shared in colleges and universities with students from other part of African countries.”

Diarra’s message is a positive one, and he points towards events such as the Broadband Middle East and Africa conferences as way of highlighting these successes and showcasing the potential of that region of the world. “There is a huge potential in terms of future consumers – the market is still expanding, and there is an improving business environment. We also have a young generation of entrepreneurs that are looking to network with the outside world. They want access to new technologies.

“[The conference] is a very important space that brings together business people from abroad and policy makers so they can attract potential clients for networking. I hope it will continue to try to help implement policies that will enable the accessibility and affordability of new technologies and information to African and Middle East countries. It’s a tool that will help them to leapfrog into this new era of knowledge economy and develop their own potential.”

The Broadband MEA conference is taking place on the 25-27th March 2012, at the Westin Mina Seyahi Beach Resort and Marina, Dubai, UAE. Go to the website to register your interest.

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