This year started with the publication of a very interesting report by researchers at the University of Oxford.
Entitled “The Impact of Connectivity in Africa: Grand Visions and the Mirage of Inclusive Digital Development”, the report goes on to note that “vast sums of money have been invested in projects and plans designed to connect the world’s remaining four billion people without an Internet connection.”
“These ambitious schemes often present digital connectivity as an instrument to achieve a range of social and economic developmental goals. This is especially the case for Africa, where Internet penetration rates remain relatively low.”
However, the researchers then go on to question the impact that connectivity has, writing: “there remains a lack of academic consensus about the actual impacts that digital connectivity (i.e. the Internet) will have on economic development.”
They note “it is possible that “many of those visions (about the economic benefits of connectivity) are hugely overblown” as “the current evidence base is mixed and inconclusive”. Ultimately, they conclude that we shouldn’t accept it as “self-evident that ICTs will automatically bring about development”.
However, for many of us working in rural Africa, the face of someone using a phone for the first time is unforgettable. We see for ourselves on a daily basis how lives are improved by access to reliable voice and data: from e-learning to video-conferencing by medics; from community internet cabins to checking a farming app; from m-money to social media. We don’t need to be able to measure the benefits to know that they are real. Put simply, there’s no way to quantify the benefits of being able to communicate with a loved one living many miles away.
Based on my experience in the field, where we are helping operators and governments to build rural networks, I predict that in 2017 rising oil prices - combined with a real belief in the ability of connectivity to bring increased economic growth - will see an increase in investment in rural telephony and data.
I know that many African governments are now actively encouraging companies from across the telecoms ecosystem and beyond – for example power companies – to build networks in rural areas. I also know that vendors such as Gilat Satcom have spent significant time and investment developing equipment which is being used to rollout commercially sustainable and cost-effective networks in rural areas across Africa.