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Special Report - Entrepreneurial Ventures in Africa (Digital Divide) - Across the Digital Divide, Bit by Byte

No one disputes that computer technology represents a marvelous tool for educating people and for transforming communities and economies. How the African digital divide is being bridged in practice, though, is a bit more complicated.

Yussar Abrar
Yussar Abrar

Much of Africa remains on the wrong side of the digital divide. But information technology has the potential to transform the continent, according to the specialists at the "Digital Divide: Technology Transfer" seminar at the Africa Business Conference.

Telecommunications opportunities aren't hard to find in Africa, noted Yussur Abrar, CEO, president, and founder of Warsun International Communications, a company that's trying to build a backbone for the African Internet in the U.S. While 99 percent of Americans have telephone service – the bedrock of the Internet—only 0.04 percent of Africans do. And already, Africans who have access to the Internet are eagerly embracing the technology.

"Across every single country, you see Internet cafes in every city, every town; young people 20, 30 years old at those computers, doing the same things that any teenager in the United States does: surf the Net, look for information, talk to their friends," Abrar said.

Thanks to cheaper technology and a loosening regulatory environment in many countries, she said the hurdles to building telecommunications networks in Africa are lower than they've ever been. "You now have opportunities to deploy networks at a fraction of the cost you would have [incurred] even a few years ago," she said.

Agreeing with Abrar was Papa Madiaw Ndiaye, managing director of MIDROC-BVI, an African investment vehicle for Saudi businessman Sheikh Mohammad Hussain Al-Amoudi; Ndiaye is also the director of the AIG Africa Infrastructure Fund. "As far as demand is concerned in Africa, there are substantial opportunities for investment in the technology sector," he said.

However, he added, finding the right opportunities is a complicated process because of the enormous variation in conditions among African countries. Not only does per-capita GDP range from $200 to $7,000, but also market sizes range from 1 million to 100 million. And despite an overall trend toward opening markets, regulatory systems still vary widely.

"Any assessment of opportunities also needs to take note that averages across the continent obscure the very large variations between the countries," Ndiaye said.

Panelist Jacques Bonjawo, a volunteer with the Pathfinder Foundation, a nonprofit organization promoting scientific and technological literacy in Africa, said companies that don't look for technology opportunities in Africa are missing out on chances to grow.

There are companies in Africa that develop software. They're just not known.
—Yussur Abrar, of Warsun International Communications

"Africa is a very, very large market, and I know that sometimes it's overlooked, but it's a mistake. Not just a humanitarian one, but a business mistake," he said. "I believe information technology gives Africa an unprecedented opportunity to get out of the cycle of poverty."

A nod to India
Panelist Rebecca Enonchong, CEO and founder of Application Technologies Inc., one of Oracle's few Africa partners, is also founder of the Africa Technologies Forum (www.africatechforum.com), a nonprofit organization aimed at helping African entrepreneurs to bridge the digital divide. Through the Africa Technologies Forum, Enonchong is trying to spread knowledge about technology to a wider African audience and increase the number of technology professionals on the continent.

Rebecca Enonchong
Rebecca Enonchong

To accomplish those goals, the Africa Technologies Forum is aiming at a wide geographic audience. "We have to get the information not just to the exclusive elite in the cities, but to the larger population," Enonchong said.

She said the organization is also trying to forge ties between African governments and information technology businesses so government officials will better understand how to build regulatory frameworks that help rather than hinder business development.

"A lot of times, the government will talk to the IFC or the World Bank about how to promote the private sector. They don't talk to the businesspeople," Enonchong asserted.

The panelists all pointed to the example of India, where many Western businesses are hiring software programmers to write code and develop applications at a fraction of the cost in the U.S. or Europe.

"Other developing nations, India in particular, understood very early what technology can do for them, so it's natural for them to enter an area of technology," said Enonchong. "With Oracle, the code is primarily written in India. AOL is now shipping out most of its development to India. Microsoft, it's the same thing. Why not Africa? Why not?"

One person attending the seminar asked Enonchong why she is working with California-based Oracle products rather than African-designed software. She said her Cameroon office does develop banking software. However, she added, "There's no sense in reinventing the wheel, because it's very, very costly to develop software. Because not only do you have to develop it, then you have to upgrade it and update it, and the technologies change."

"There are companies in Africa that develop software. They're just not known," noted Abrar. "I have come across them in Ethiopia, I have come across them in Kenya, I have come across them in several countries in Africa. They just don't go across the border yet."

African companies and countries don't want to buy African software. And so what you do is that you have the software developed in Africa … and then you market it as if it came from America.
—Rebecca Enonchong, of Application Technologies, Inc.

African puzzle
Enonchong added that some African companies exhibit a bias against African-developed software.

"What we find is a very interesting phenomenon," she said. "In Africa, African companies and countries don't want to buy African software. And so what you do is that you have the software developed in Africa … and then you market it as if it came from America. And then they will actually buy it."

Sometimes that bias extends to technology professionals. Enonchong recalled a time when a company official in Gabon told her she was wary of using Enonchong's Oracle training services. Application Technologies had sent the company a trainer from Cameroon and, according to Enonchong, the company official said, "‘For this amount of money, we should have gotten a white man.'"

The home front
Bonjawo challenged the seminar participants, many of them students from Africa, to return to the continent and help develop an information technology industry there.

"You and I are very fortunate to have access to information technology, so we all bear the responsibility to tackle this big endeavor and work with the African youth to get them up to speed," he told the audience.

And Samuel C.O. Holt, a founder of the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio and currently president of content for satellite broadcaster WorldSpace Corp., reminded participants that the delivery of knowledge must be at the core of any technology development plans.

"I think the best way you can think of countries moving toward self-sufficiency, self-confidence, self-reliance, is through the information that enables its citizens to ask the right questions," he said. "Technologies are tools, but content rules."

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Photos by Martha Lagace