Governments and non-governmental organizations active in information and communications technology will meet next February at the Bamako 2000 conference in Mali. Among them will be the Dakar-based OSIRIS and its head, Olivier Sagna
Africa is already a participant in the information society, at its own rhythm and in its own way. Even though illiteracy is widespread, "sometimes, you see illiterate people among the heaviest users" of new information and communication technologies (ICTs), says Mr. Olivier Sagna, who heads a young, Dakar-based non-governmental organization - the Observatory on Information Systems, Networks and Information Highways (the French acronym is OSIRIS).
Mobile telephones have really caught on in Senegal’s informal sector among "illiterate traders who obviously need to communicate." Also, illiterate emigrants began making video recordings to send home some time ago. "Now the family can see the brother or father alive, speaking his own language, without intermediaries." Even if access to ICTs is limited due to cost, language and literacy, "communities are adapting the technology to their needs."
Amidst all this globalization, Africans cannot be active only within national borders. We think that ICTs are a powerful tool for advancing African unity.
— Olivier Sagna
Telecentres can help democratize ICT access. In Senegal, the national telecommunications company (Sonatel) was unable to provide universal public service. It allowed people to set up a telephone service in their homes. Now there are over 10,000 of these "telecentres," even in distant villages. Once there is electricity and a phone line, then there can be a telecentre. Just as 10 or 15 people read one newspaper and people listen to the radio and watch TV in groups, "it’s the same with a telephone : neighbours freely give your phone number to others and get calls and messages." This is precisely the "cultural specificity that we must factor into our ICT strategies."
Telecentres should start off small and accessible, in a garage or in somebody’s room, so that they maintain community relations and character. "The telecentre operator can dial for you, or translate your e-mail message from French or English. The operator can also find information for you on the Internet."
Mr. Sagna cites language and "the absence of African-generated material about African realities" among the key barriers to greater demand for Internet-related services. Most Internet content is in English, and for francophone African countries, "much of content in French may have little to do with daily realities." He argues that Africans must decide for themselves what they need to have on the Internet. "The risk is that tomorrow, others will come and do market feasibility studies, then go away to develop products that meet our needs. Once again, we will be passive consumers and not producers."
He describes as "an open secret" the foreign private sector push for legal changes in African countries. "They know that rates of return on investment in Africa are the highest in the world. They know that Africa is a big market. They have the advantage of having exploited Internet opportunities before us. They have greater human and financial resources to invest in the sector, and to exert pressure on our governments."
In some countries, local private sector initiatives have run up against the foreign private monopoly that has replaced the state monopoly. In Senegal, Sonatel was privatized and now France Télécom has some 42 per cent in equity and has a legal and practical monopoly in certain service areas "which hampers national private sector development." Mr. Sagna says that with relatively little investment, wireless loops with a VSAT (very small aperture terminal) antenna can serve a community over a 5-10 kilometre radius. "This is being done in a few countries but in Senegal, France Télécom cannot do it and has forbidden others from providing this kind of service. The fact of a monopoly makes ICT costs higher than if there was competition."
For example, there used to be a minimum legal distance between telecentres. Then Sonatel saw their success and lifted the distance rule. All telecentres used to sell a phone unit at CFA 100 francs after buying it from Sonatel at CFA 50 francs. "Now, the price can be as low as 65 francs in some neighbourhoods, there is a proliferation of telecentres, better access and lower costs for consumers due to competition."
OSIRIS raises awareness and encourages debate about the need for an independent regulatory authority in Senegal, Internet security and intellectual property issues. It is a member of ANAIS (the Advisory Network on African Information Strategies), together with similar organizations in Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Mali. Their efforts to build a strong and active network will be boosted next February at the Bamako 2000 conference of organizations active in the ICT sector. "Amidst all this globalization, Africans cannot be active only within national borders. We think that ICTs are a powerful tool for advancing African unity."
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