We know that there is a rural/rural-digital divide in the United States but fly about 18 hours east and a tad south of our nation’s capital and you hit the challenges of providing access to East Africa. While Africa has witnessed an unprecedented increase in mobile and broadband connectivity in recent years, their leaders have taken a very proactive role in creating real relationships with the private sector and other interested parties with the creation of their Information Communications Technology (ICT) development. This has allowed their aspirations to go beyond just access to using broadband and communications; the technology has increased productivity in sectors like education, health care, agriculture and business. Even with less development and available capital, there are still interesting lessons to learn from others who have geographic challenges in providing service.
One of the things I have found most interesting during my travels in eastern Africa over the past week and a half has been the access to data services, even when in remote areas (but tourist-driven areas) and then the stark contrast in not being able to get access in locations that are more populated but certainly less affluent. Seeing microwave towers in the Serengeti, telephone poles in Maasai Mara and more mobile access points than can be imagined between the border of Kenya and Tanzania were a fascinating part of our recent trek. (Ok, the animals were even more fascinating, but I had others around me wondering why I was missing taking a picture of a hippo when I was aiming for towers on the hillsides.)
Planes were equipped with Iridium phones and the open spaces must mean less interference because my last bush pilot—yes, this trip had a total of 17 take offs and landings in a 12 seater that looked more like a flying couch than a plane and ran more like buses stopping every 15 minutes to pick up and drop off folks and included dirt airstrips, airports with a hut bathroom if you were lucky enough and had warthogs near the runways—was texting during the flight…not that I was neurotic about it or anything….
All of that has led to African leaders committing to put ICT at the center of their national socio-economic development agendas. They have created a set of common principles under Connect Africa which envisions a partnership between each African country that joins the effort, the African Development Bank, the World Bank, the International Telecommunication Union and the private sector…all banding together to create a Smart Africa initiative. Hmm, sounds a bit like NTCA’s Smart Rural Community efforts!
One of the things I love most about traveling is the opportunity to keep learning about new places, new cultures and what makes them tick. This trip was an added bonus because the scenery itself was worth the schlep!