Development Workshop organised in the framework of INET'97, the annual Internet Society conference which was held this year in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Dr. Quaynor is Executive Chairman of Network Computer Systems in Accra, Ghana. He is also president and founding member of the Ghana ISOC Chapter.
Building bridges: roads to integrating Internet use in Africa
Pulling down barriers
Will the differences and divisions within Africa make it difficult for people to get together and talk about the development of the Internet?
Yes and no. There are just as many divisions in the developed societies as there are in Africa. So I don't think of those divisions as a paramount obstacle to our integration in information services. Africa's difficulty is more related to political or organisational differences and some lack of maturity in the structures that are trying to evolve these information services. We have very young governments. Many of them have not transformed their societies in any fundamental way to prepare them for this information sharing and contribution, ... Many of them have not even expanded the use of information in their own decision making and in advancing the societies within their own countries. It makes it very difficult for us to even think effectively how we do the transborder or transorganisational integration. Even though the people are in many ways the same in my country and in Togo, we even speak the same language, yet when it comes to the use of "modern information services" we don't have such integration. These are the barriers that have to be torn down. It is not only an issue of the developing countries, it also has to do with trade relations. A lot of the telecom companies are so structured that the French speaking countries are connected to France and the English speaking countries to the UK or the States. So instead of taking advantage of our "fragile" West African microwave links, trade and communication go between Ghana and the UK or the US and between Togo and France, but not between Ghana and Togo. Until we start having enough trade amongst ourselves, the integration will not function properly.
What are possible answers to this problem?
The answers are straight forward. We have to make our regional economic communities work. We have to go beyond defining them on paper like ECOWAS (the Economic Commission for West Africa States). At the same time we should not underestimate the influence of international trade and the vested interests of countries like the UK and France. Our countries are very small. Unless we have a large enough united block we will not succeed.
You need to find the right balance between international trade and trade between yourselves.
I want to argue that we need to focus on trade between ourselves. This underlies the question of the integration of Internet use. The Internet is strictly an instrument for trade, development, and social advancement. The problems we have with trade, also affect the integration of our Internet services. I was helping Togo to develop their Internet services, but it was difficult for them to call me because their call was routed through France. You tend to lay your wires where you have high intensity traffic.
So there is an unseen geography in which these countries are attached to other countries like Britain, France and the States. And these links are like magnets drawing trade out of the country.
Precisely. We are saying that we should change the polarity of the magnets or at least reduce their intensity.
Riding the wave
Is the economic and social model that goes with the Information Society appropriate to the African Continent or does it have to develop its own way of using these technologies?
We have always used information. Even today in Ghana, when a chief dies, they don't send a letter or a telegram, they still get out their drums and beat a particular sequence of information. .. and this message is echoed from village to village. These Africans were not only sharing information and communicating, but they were doing it in a wireless way. So there is no problem with us being able to adopt this information within our society for our advancement. Now, the rate of delivery of information is potentially high and the need for it is also high, but we have not been able to stay with the wave. So it is more a question of preparing ourselves to accelerate.
The whole challenge of getting West Africa on the Internet for some of us and for me in particular was a thing I wanted to see happen for our kids sake. Not for my sake. All I have to do is to go to the US and I am successful and I will have a good career. But what about our kids who are missing out on all these advancements. So the mission is to find people to support that goal. It can't be for business or for the glory of it, because there is none. It is all sweat. We have to work a little bit harder. That has to be underscored. This industry changes very rapidly. And if you are already behind, then you may have to work three or four times as hard to even maintain your position of being behind. So we have to focus on developing our own research methods as a way of getting a peak into the future. We have to begin to participate in the technologies in a very deep way...
Seeds for the future
What about the problem of reaching a critical mass in research? Is there not room for collaboration between countries in Africa to attain this?
I work very closely with the International Centre for Physics in Italy ... but we can also create these resources in Africa. Many people are scattered around the world. Take me for example. I received a UNDP consultancy to come back to Ghana and work for the National Petroleum Corporation for 18 months. That gave me a bridge which enabled me to settle down. The capacity can be built here. If everybody was investing their own personal money and time like I have tried to do, there would be no problem. When you come back like I did you have to do something, to make some waves, and I started a movement. Other colleagues in the States felt that if I could come to Ghana and make things happen they too could do it. And they followed.
The caricature of Africa seen from the outside is of a continent that takes its time to do things. If that be true, wouldn't it be incompatible with hurrying to catch up?
Africa is very diverse. Even in Ghana. You can find some of the most specialised professionals in Ghana and you can find some of the most unprepared people for information technologies. This gap reflects itself in the inertia you observe. It would be wrong to try and focus on moving the entire mass of the population. We should do our things like planting and growing a seed. All we need to do is identify the core competencies and expand on them, creating a demand so as to gradually absorb everybody.
Interview by Alan McCluskey, Kuala Lumpur.Share or comment
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