Batsirai Mike Chivhanga Email: firstname.lastname@example.orgAbstract
This paper presents findings of the impact of ICTs, in particular the Internet in the production and dissemination of public information. It is drawn from field visits undertaken in two Southern African countries – Zambia and Zimbabwe. The field visits have sought to track the growth and diffusion of the Internet, in particular the use of web sites to bridge information gaps in key areas of development.I. Introduction
The underlying logic that has been central in this paper is that information and knowledge are essential keys to any development activity and developing countries need to step up efforts to harness these two ingredients behind change and innovation in the economies of western and Far East countries. These two visible and invisible forces - information and knowledge, have been behind many of the phenomenal achievements since the Second World War in many developed countries (OECD, 2001). There has to be a dramatic change in the information policies followed by many organisations - whether public or private in many countries in Africa, as many of them are still to use web sites to reduce ubiquitous information gaps that traditional media have failed to fill.
The content of this paper has come out many years of research on how to increase the diffusion of ICTs for development purposes, in particular the Internet and one of its popular technologies, web sites. The project has resulted in the development of a participatory web design approach - People Approach to Produce Web Content’ (PAPWEC) that can be used to produce online public services information in the context of countries in Sub-Sahara Africa.
Thus two variables – improvement in the quality and increase in the quantity of locally generated web sites guided the development of this methodology and its implementation in the field. PAPWEC has been used to train web publishers in Zambia and Tanzania in 2000 and 2001. These training programmes were also linked to the production of community web sites on the basis of PAPWEC. The projects were funded by the International Institute for Communications and Development (IICD), that is based in The Hague.II. Contextualising PAPWEC
PAPWEC can be used as a basis for preparing web content or it can be a powerful training platform for those publishing web sites for use in developing countries. Where PAPWEC takes an approach of its own, is that, it focuses more on the gathering and preparation of that content that can be used by people in key development areas such as health, education, science and technology and government. It seeks to address the socio-economic circumstances of people through the content that is presented via a web site. This is realised through involving them in the building of the web site. Their express wishes can be captured through questionnaire based information needs analysis, establishing a web content editorial team and setting up focus groups to get a general feel about how a web site can address community developmental goals.
The underlying logic behind PAPWEC is that web content should be matched by people’s development goals – simply put, innovative uses and development of web technologies in developing settings should be spurred to respond to people’s needs and wants. This is one reason why mobile phones are working in Africa – they are being used to improve communication where traditional telephone services have dismally failed to provide universal access to communication. Web sites should be used on the basis of the same logic – provide every type of information in environments where traditional information services are poorly developed and inequitably distributed.
PAPWEC can be contextualised to assess the information needs and formulate content for people that are marginalised in any given society. It is however more applicable to situations in most developing settings, in particular Sub-Sahara Africa (SSA) (Chivhanga, 2000).
There are four stages that can be followed in the web weaving process using the PAPWEC approach, namely:
· Needs Analysis - examine existing sources of information, identify the information needs/gaps of the users, study the socio-economic circumstances of the target audience, their culture and environment and through this determine how they are likely to use that information, determine the development goals to be met.
· Content Architecture - determine the source of the content, determine the nature of content, establish how the web resource/information is going to meet the development goals i.e. establish goal congruence - the relationship between information and development and consider any constraints the eventual user is likely to face when accessing the web resource.
· Authoring - design the interface of the web site e.g. navigation structure, background and knit all the different media elements using appropriate web editing packages and web programming languages.
· Implementation and Impact Assessments - this stage involves publishing your web resource on the Internet, carrying out impact assessments, analyse web log results, revising and up-dating the content.
The PAPWEC model was used to undertake the field studies in Zambia (2000), Tanzania (2001), Zimbabwe (2000, 2001), The Gambia (2003) and more recently in Finland (2005).
It is hoped that this web design methodology will used to nurture web content and management skills that can be creatively and innovatively used to step up efforts to knit web sites that will improve local ‘infostructures’ (UNECA, 1999). These capacity-building activities will no doubt increase the uses of web sites by ordinary people that are still digitally marginalised. Lack of creative foresight to harness these new technologies in the context of people’s circumstances has greatly undermined the innovative deployment of Internet technologies in the Continent. This has greatly reduced their role as tools for development.III. Unrealised potential of web sites in Southern Africa
The evidence gathered clearly show that email more than web sites have made a big impact in how people in Africa can communicate and access information (Jensen, 2001). Mobile phones have penetrated African societies much faster than the Internet – the diffusion is increasing exponentially (Dzidonu, 2001). The uptake of mobile phones in the continent reflects similar trends being set in China and many countries in Asia, where saturation points are yet to be reached. The devices are changing the communication behaviour of people at grassroots level, where the teledensity is the lowest in the world (OECD, 2001). There must be something about these two technologies - email and mobile phones, which seem to be a natural attraction to these societies. The societies traditionally are oral based and it only seems natural that these two devices support essentially communication interactions - whether it's through texting, sending an email and speaking on the phone. When it comes to information seeking, as the field studies in Southern Africa showed, web sites are not readily used as alternative sources of information where traditional information services are severely under-developed, negatively impacting on core development activities (Carter, 1999).
Early proponents (from the early 1990s) of the notion (Hafkin, 2001) – quite rightly identified the leapfrogging pace that could be set through the integration of ICTs in core development activities. They however did not do much to expend research and development efforts to focus on developing appropriate approaches that could guide local organisations in SSA to increase the production of quality content for web site delivery. The pipes were laid for Africa to be part of the networked world, but there was no juicy stuff to send down the pipes – it’s still not there yet (Yeoman, 2002). Infrastructural developments to increase the diffusion of the Internet in Africa have not been matched by an equal development of web sites that people can access and use in their day to day lives.
The absence of rigorous web content building methodologies that can be used to garner government led national efforts to reduce information gaps in key socio-economic areas is seen in the poor quality of some web sites that emanate and are maintained from within the continent.
Web sites should have been quickly adopted as an essential information delivery platform in Africa as early as 1995, when UNECA conceptualised an action programme to spur the first major Internet networking project throughout Africa – the Africa Information Society Initiative (AISI). Why? Simply because the generic purpose of a web site is to provide access to a wealth of information as intended by the inventor of the web - Berners Lee (Norris, 2001). There are so many areas where information is terribly lacking in many Southern African countries. The advantages offered by web sites – e.g. repackaging information, ease of publication and accessibility by even those living far in remote areas should have endeared this technology in those environments.
Government departments, both local and central have not harnessed the web technologies to provide key public information. Local people don’t use these web sites – there is very little content on them that they can use to impact on their circumstances. These web sites are basically electronic brochures. Public information that can engage local people to be active participants in their own development has been left to those civil sector organisations working as intermediaries for the poor people. These information intermediaries are struggling to get funding to support their core development activities. Assistance from relevant government ministries to enable these organisations to also build and maintain information resources that poor people can access directly or facilitators can repackage that information for distribution in readily accessible formats, should become a policy that is consistently followed in practice. These civil sector organisations, particularly in Zimbabwe are under constant political attack and their development oriented work is severely slowed down.
Content creation activities should be seen as a development priority just like the need for safe drinking water or provision of electricity. What has happened is that international organisations working to support change and development in Africa have taken the lead to promote through practice, the development of such web sites hoping that local institutions would carry on where they have started. Once the project money to build a community web site has dried up – local interest in the project gradually dries up and is enamelled in glossy reports that are pedalled to different international organisations for the next ICTs project. This was seen in the exercises that involved building prototype web sites in Tanzania and Zambia. Local institutions were hoping that the external funder would continue to give them funds to maintain and host the web site that they clearly accepted would improve access to local and external information for their people. The funds were not forthcoming and the impact of those web sites was undermined as local institutions did not bother to make it a policy to use web sites as a vehicle to disseminate information to the target audience.IV. The neglect
Information problems in many developing settings have been noted by other researchers in the field of ICTs in development. The value of information in many developing settings is often not accorded the paramount significance that it duly deserves (McConnell, 1995). The neglect is visibly present when one cannot get even, ‘the basic of basic information’ at times (Mchombu, 1995).
Menou (1993), brings the matter to the fore by saying:
"Although we have witnessed a steady growth in the provision of information services in developing countries, a number of fundamental questions still remain unanswered. The people of these countries question the relevance and appropriateness of the services offered. Development assistance agencies are concerned about problems and sustainability. The extent to which information societies actually contribute to the empowerment of people and the accountability of the institutions concerned are subjects of controversy and debate. Logic dictates that information is an essential resource for social and economic development of Third World countries, but how can this be demonstrated? How tangible is the linkage between information investments and the achievement of specific development goals? The limited status accorded to information in most developing countries suggests that its potential value is not evident.”
The response to the web by those providing information services in Southern Africa, especially public information has not resulted in the information explosion that has been happening in many developed countries since the Internet became a mass-media technology. It could be to do with the fact that poor information gathering techniques and policies are not being followed (Nicholas, 2000).V. Stunted creative efforts
Other studies conducted elsewhere (Lush, 2000), (Nulens, 2001) show that African web content is still to improve. The studies also show that locally generated web sites that are making an impact are those sites that promote tourism, African arts and culture and government sites that provide investment information. There is one characteristic that is common with these sites – they target people living outside Africa. This particular international target audience is getting the information that they want from Africa and about Africa. Local people on the other hand, know very little about their own countries and the rest of the international community. It puts them at a disadvantage when conducting international business transactions such as negotiating prices and better trading terms. They do need to have full trade and market information to improve their bargaining with overseas-based businesses (Heeks, 2001) Local chambers of commerce should be seen to be providing that critical trade and market information so that those exporting overseas can get better prices for their products and services. Those in agriculture need up-to-date information to improve productivity (UNECA, 1999). Those in education need access to a wide range of educational learning materials that are specially tailored to prepare them to apply that knowledge innovatively to address development problems (Adedeji, 1993).
Traditional government information services in many Southern African countries have not been in a ready state for realignment with the new media, as what has happened in the information service sector in developed countries. The opportunity provided by the web media to improve information services couldn’t have been more welcome anywhere else, but in Africa where there are such huge information gaps.
There are clear distinctions between the rich and the poor, the ‘information haves and the information have-nots’. The digital divide is clearly seen in how a majority of people are still ignorant about many things that can improve their well being - they always have to wait for others to interpret things and make decisions for them. They do not have equal access to this rich reservoir of digital information that the web offers and those trusted to assist them are failing to do so and as one respondent in an information needs assessment in Zambia put so well:
"There is an institutional syndrome not to share information."
A 2-day workshop on content and applications development in Africa that took place in Johannesburg , in November 2001 made a clarion call for local professionals and institutions to take the lead in improving the image of the continent through self-expression.
"Awareness needs to be built and perhaps emanate from our universities, schools and other incubators of creative talent; there are literally thousands of creative writers, singers and song writers, dramatic artists, etc. who are capable of writing the African story, interpreting the African condition and presenting it in a compelling way. If content of sufficient quality can be produced, Africans have the potential to build demand in the international markets." (Sintim-Misa, 2002)VI. Being more creative and innovative
The observations made as a result of this investigation is that, people’s socio-economic needs should be driving web content creation. The development of innovative Internet technologies should be deliberately fostered to make that content accessible to the target audience using the most affordable, reliable and appropriate delivery mechanisms – what one may call ‘Last Mile Technologies’(LMTs). LMTs are a set of innovative technologies that are geared towards reducing the digital divide in developing settings. The PAPWEC model is an example of an LMT as it can be used to garner efforts towards providing information to marginalised people. The Continent has the lowest number of Internet users in the world! This is being addressed now as projects are underway to find technological solutions to increase the quality of Internet services in the continent and widen access so that ordinary people can reached. Hence we see Internet cafes mushrooming throughout the continent. Young people are the main users of these Internet cafes. While they are using the Internet – especially web based email to communicate, they find that there is very little that they can get from some of these local web sites. Locally relevant web sites are few and if they are there, they target some sections of the population. That is why most of them visit Western originated web sites that really do not offer that content that reflects their needs. It is not surprising why web sites have not penetrated these societies and become a natural part of the fabric of the information environment.
In education, where one would have hoped for African educational institutions to embrace this technology, the same problem is there – local students visit educational resources hosted and produced for Western students. Their own educational institutions are doing very little to generate relevant educational content for them. There is a big problem in that local institutions do not really place much emphasis on continuously improving information services. A major problem observed by other leading experts in ICTs in development is that Internet technologies in Africa are being implemented without taking into consideration the e-readiness of the local societies e.g. existing telecommunications infrastructure, IT capabilities, IT enabling environments, availability of a skilled IT workforce, the number of PCs available and attitudes to new technologies.
The content on some of the web sites – apart from mainly newspaper web sites, don’t have that exciting local appeal that would endear these technologies to the people and make them a part of their everyday lives – like mobile phones. ICTs developments have created new opportunities to present and access various types of content. There is a need to understand the capabilities of the technologies and how they can change the production and dissemination of information. Innovative strategies that can make the content accessible using the best and appropriate technologies available is one way to make these technologies accepted by ordinary African people (Chivhanga, 2000f the technologies are not available, then unique and original ways have to be sought by companies that are active in the sector. This is one fundamental reason why web sites are still to bring sustainable socio-economic gains to the countries south of the Sahara. There are few creative, innovative and sophisticated applications of web sites to make web sites an integrated part of traditional media in many Southern African countries excluding South Africa.Mapping the terrain - what is web content?
It is important to have a clear picture of what it is that this model that was produced in the thesis sought to address. Essentially the main aim of the thesis was to find practical ways that could be adapted in different local contexts to increase the quality of the content that is found on African web sites.
Web content is the information that is presented on a web site. This information can be presented through text, images, audio, animation, graphics and other multimedia elements. Hypertext mark-up language (HTML) and Internet programming languages like Java, are used to knit all this content together. Web authoring packages like Macromedia Dreamweaver (http://www.macromedia.com/
) and Microsoft FrontPage (http://www.microsoft.com/
), are commonly used to technically weave that content together i.e. design and develop the web site, ready for publication on the Internet.
The content should be contextulised to suit the needs of the people it is aimed at. That process of localisation of the content makes it more relevant and appropriate to a group of people, a community or individual. Hence African web content - "information that relates directly to Africa that is published on web sites built and hosted in African countries'' (Da Costa, 2001).
Implementation of ICTs projects in Africa has focused more on improving the infrastructure without an equal effort to increase availability of information that will make web sites a trusted source of information. Yeomens rightly points out that: “content is knowledge - and knowledge is money”. He goes on further to say:
"The reality is that content is the reason for the technology's existence. It is shaped by, and shapes, the patterns of boxes, wires and signals spreading across the world. It embraces everything from the latest mango price through the Malian music you have just bought at the airport, the Andhra Pradesh land title map, the Bolloywood movie animating a video café on the Deccan, the falling share prices that just closed a factory, the tense telephone reassurances between a migrant worker and her family, to the stories stitching the fabric of traditional African society and the dried milk advertisement on the rickety township hoarding." (Yeomens, 2002)
One can put it in another way – African web content can be regarded as information that relates directly to the people of Africa living on and off the African continent. Geographical location of the Africans will however change the socio-economic circumstances of the people and hence their information needs. Africans leaving outside Africa generally have easy access to information resources on Africa that is available from Western sources, even though some of these sources are biased. It is therefore necessary to distinguish these two groups – Africans living in Africa and those Africans living in the Continent.
The content on the web site and its features should make a visitor to the site say something like this:
"Yes, this web site really looks like it’s meant for me, was prepared for me and I can use it in my day to day life as it directly or indirectly deals with the issues that I am faced with everyday to improve my livelihood opportunities and I am well informed about this and that ".
Further clarification is still needed to what we mean by relevant web content.
"It seems simple and obvious that content can be defined as local when produced in a specified geographic locality, such as a village, province, or even country or continent. The problem with this definition is that information from a locality does not always have a relation to the people living in that place. Especially in a globalising world, content produced in India may not be Indian at all, but simply cheaper to package in India than elsewhere. " ( Ballantyne, 2002).
The same source as above goes further in expanding the definition of content by saying local content: "is that content that is intended for a specific local audience, as defined by its geographic location, culture or its language".
That content should be seen to be coming from the people or local communities. Ballantyne gives a useful working definition of content in a Research Report: 'Collecting and Propagating Local Development Content' thus:
"Local content is the expression of the locally owned and adapted knowledge of a community - where the community is defined by its location, culture, language or area of interest".
This definition therefore maps the sources and nature of the content as being local (endogenous information) and external (exogenous information) (Menou, 1993).
What has been identified in many research activities as the one undertaken by IICD (http://www.iicd.org/
) and revealed in the cited report and others, is that the nature of available information on the web sites shows that very little of it is produced by local people or that their input has been intensively sought and informed the web design and development process.
African web content is referred to mean that content that is about Africa, is directly aimed to be used by Africans whether living on the African continent or elsewhere.
The nature of the web content should drive home the message of the web site without leaving any ambiguities or uncertainties in the minds of the target audience. Eventually it should seek to provide sufficient information for the visitor to the web site to make an informed decision or be better informed, undertake a particular activity for example buy online or engage in an online discussion. These activities are some essential features that can be found on a web site - their availability being determined by the purpose of the web site.
The uses of a particular web site will vary from the person to person, but the web publisher of an African web site should strive to present the message to make it relevant, useful and appropriate to the target population. The fact is that locally based web publishers should use their skills and know-how to create web sites that their own people can use in their day to day lives.
Most of the content rich web sites about them and their countries is generated and owned by Western based organisations. Nationals of those countries residing in developed countries are however making huge contributions in the creation of web sites about their own countries - this should be considered as local content.
Local organisations for example government institutions that produce free public information are not making challenging efforts to collate and digitise that information that should be made available via a central digital source. Online government information services are useful for foreign visitors who get factual information about the country. There are still be used by to improve governance and make the democratic process a reality i.e. increase the political impact of ICTs in those settings (Norris, 2001).Local web appeal
The web evaluation exercises showed that web sites have not moved from establishing the Internet presence of the organisation. The university web sites have the barest of information – mainly about courses on offer. There are no online educational materials for the students or comprehensive links to such sites. Departmental web pages are the worst. Some of the departmental web sites evaluated have one long page, on one site and all the links are dead. There is no policy and practice to use web sites as a teaching and learning tool. A web site is built once and never updated or even indicate that it is providing current information. At the end of the day, these web sites are not relevant first to the crop of current registered students, local university researchers, prospective students, national and international researchers and organisations.
This is a sorry state of affairs – most of the national universities’ web sites have nothing on them! The content on them speaks for itself – more could be done to make it richer and appealing to local audiences. For content to be truly reflective of the target audience, their involvement in the creation of it is imperative.
"Helping poor people to create, understand, use, buy, sell and exchange content meaningful to their lives is not the obscure fad of a few enthusiasts on the fringe of the global information society. It is the core purpose." (Yeomens, 2002)
The following are some key characteristics of that content that local people will find meaningful in their lives. These characteristics were synthesised from an information needs exercise while building the Mwanza community web site in Tanzania during the IICD sponsored projects:
1. The content needs should be expressed by the intended community of users.
2. It should reflect their culture and socio-economic circumstances.
3. It should be in a language that they can easily understand - preferably in their local languages.
4. If the content has come from other external sources, it should be adapted to suit local purposes.
5. The community of users of a web site should be taught how to express their content needs and how to use new media to publish web sites in their own right.
6. The web site should be easily accessible and download quickly.
7. Fresh content should be added at appropriate times.
The way that content is gathered and disseminated should have a local appeal. ICTs developments have created new opportunities to present and access various types of content. There is a need to understand the capabilities of the technologies, inorder to use them to their maximum potential, develop innovative strategies that can make the content accessible using the best and appropriate technologies available.
There is also an important need to understand the substance that goes on the web site – information that is packaged in an assortment of multimedia format. A web site conveys a message – that message could informational or related to a particular activity like online shopping. There are also features on that web site that visitors can make use of. There can go into a chat room for example and talk about common issues. All these elements that make up a web site have to be carefully moulded and woven into the web site for it to deliver.
What one notices on a number of locally generated African web sites - especially those evaluated, shows that very little thought has gone in building the content. Most of the web sites have not moved from providing 'brochure like information' (Jensen, 2001).
This observation prompted the author to undertake the doctoral research - four years after the initial web evaluation in 1999, the evidence clearly shows that there are no rigorous approaches being followed in building these local web sites to make them relevant to people in those communities.
Interviews in Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe confirmed that web publishers just got on with building a web site without carrying out any information needs assessment or storyboarding the content design.
Sustainable information services
Whose duty is it to provide public information? Government departments first and civil society organisations second. Media organisations get paid for supplying information on a regular basis on issues that affect the country and the public. But those that are placed to provide public information are not dutifully using their offices and public resources to do so. Respective government departments and agencies should take the lead in digitising information resources that will create a knowledge-based society. Such resources will create a society, whose members are fully aware.
In a the book titled ‘Informing Communities’ (Kinnell, 1992), the Foreword opens thus:
“We live in a society (referring to the UK society) which is underpinned by information, in which both work and leisure time increasingly depend on intelligent technology. Access to information, for individuals and communities, and for business and commerce, is therefore vital”.
This is how other societies have been continuously building information and knowledge bases that underpin socio-economic progress. Civil society organisations both national and international – dubbed NGOs, have been working with other key stakeholders to implement ICTs in development. They are now leading the efforts to localise and contextualise content creation..It seems so clear what needs to be done, but implementation is laboriously slow – this is why Africa is in danger of always playing the catching up game when new technologies are diffused.
New technologies like web sites should be used to collate and disseminate local information and knowledge. People centred approaches should be used to harness information and knowledge (Adedeji, 1993). Local information and knowledge (endogenous information) when combined with exogenous information should result in real benefits when used in the day to activities by local people (Menou, 1992).
Most of the information about local situations is generated by external organisations and local people and organisations buy this material back in the form of books. Locally based experts are doing very little to use their expertise to build a stock of information and knowledge that has a local appeal and is even sought after by external people and organisations. Government departments have to consult an external publication like Africa Economic Digest that provides information about their own situation. This information is hard to come by for the ordinary person as one respondent in a questionnaire exercise in Zambia stated.Internet status report in Southern Africa
The last few years have seen a phenomenal growth of the Internet in Southern Africa. It has already led to transformations in the lives of a number of people and is fast changing the way organisations communicate and do business. What is noticeable when one looks at what is actually happening on the ground, is that there is now a full awareness of what the Internet is and what it can do. Many people are aware of the changes it has rung outside Southern Africa. Of particular note is the fact that large organisations (both in the public and private sectors) now have an information policy that centres on the Internet as the main vehicle for communication and the dissemination of information within the organisation and with other organisations. Many of these organisations especially SMEs (Small to Medium Sized Enterprises) are still to translate that policy into practice and devote a reasonable budget for a dedicated in-house web development team. Internet cafes have made an appealing presence as the latest thing in town. What is apparent is that there are distinct and varied groups of Internet users in each country. There are a number of stumbling blocks preventing the realisation of the many hoped for Internet dreams and at times the Net experience is frustrating as access speeds are notoriously slow.
Most Internet services are confined to capital cities and in some countries the services extend to secondary towns. Countries like Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe have established Points of Presence (POPs) in some locations outside the capital city.
The following readily available statistics reveal the differences in the rate of Internet use between the countries in the region:Global Online Populations
Worldwide Internet Population 2004: 934 million (Computer Industry Almanac)
Projection for 2005: 1.07 billion(Computer Industry Almanac)
Projection for 2006: 1.21 billion(Computer Industry Almanac)
Projection for 2007: 1.35 billion(Computer Industry Almanac)
Titles for the following country description:
Population (CIA's WorldFactbook)
Internet Users (CIA's WorldFactbook)
ISPs (CIA's WorldFactbook)
Figure 1 http://www.clickz.com/stats/web_worldwide
The statistics clearly show that the number of Internet users in Southern Africa is very small. These statistics show Internet subscription accounts – data that is supplied by Internet Service Providers in those countries. The above table also shows that in the rest of Africa and countries inhabited mainly by black people like in the Caribbean, reveals the same pattern of slow uptake of the Internet is ubiquitous. Further studies will need to be undertaken to analyse why this is so.
The level of diffusion of the Internet in countries such as Finland, the UK and the USA as shown in the same table above is so far ahead of these African countries and show the extent of the digital divide. The digital divide is not fiction – it is for real. African countries are challenged to take stock of the penetration of new technologies in their societies and in that process devise innovative strategies to benefit from them as is happening elsewhere in other parts of the world.
On a field trip to Zambia and Zimbabwe (July to September 2000) –the author of this paper noted that a standard dial up account services three to four people in the immediate family as well as relatives and teenage friends. The situation has not changed that much over the last five years as revealed by the recent statistics (Figure 1). The actual number of Internet users for one single Internet account could be up to 5 to 10 people and this gives a totally different picture. The young local educated population is increasingly finding that having an Internet based email account and using the Internet for getting information is by far, more efficient and less time consuming than traditional media. It’s actually trendy to be an Internet user and the message is spreading fast and many young people are being hooked to the technology despite not having their own personal computers and subscriber accounts.
In Southern African countries, such as Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe there is widespread installation of PCs with Internet access in hotels and lodges. Customers pay so much to send and receive email and surf the web. These facilities are also found in many shopping malls and there are always in demand, especially in Zimbabwe. These other alternative ways to access the Internet in the region has gone unaccounted for by organisations such as Network Wizards that count the number of Internet users based on dial-up accounts.
Most ISPs are responding to customer demand by making available to them low cost email services. Most people use Hotmail, Yahoo and Excite. They are also expensive to use, as connection to the remote site has to be maintained. Those that can afford to have Internet access charge people for using their dial-up account to surf and use web-based email.
Email is the facility that has made the greatest impact in Southern Africa. It is being used both for personal and business purposes. It is becoming by far the best means of communication between researchers, businesses working with overseas clients and suppliers. The web is still not used as a main source of new information largely because most users are not yet adept at searching and the cost of Internet access and download time of web pages discourages both novice and experienced users.
The UN Economic Commission for Africa, which has been instrumental in accelerating the growth of the Internet, points out that there is about one incoming and one outgoing email per person of an average of 3 to 4 pages. These are mainly communications with people outside the region. A survey by ECA (2000) indicates that 25 % of the email is replacing faxes, while 10 % are replacing phone calls and the other 65% represent new communications that would not have arisen without the email system. NGOs, private companies and universities have the highest number of users. The majority of users are nationals although their representation varies from country to country. In Zambia for example 44 % were nationals. Most users are male. In Zambia, the approximate number of male users was about 64 %. Just like in most developed countries, the largest number of users is very educated. In Zambia about 87 % of the users were educated up to degree level. This pattern is reflected throughout Southern Africa and as mentioned earlier on, has not drastically changed over the last four years.The ISPs industry and market conditions
Internet Service Providers are mushrooming throughout Southern Africa’s capitals. The slow access to Internet services is still a major constraint to the effective and efficient running of the technology. After all, the Internet is all about immediacy. This is largely because of the high tariffs on international calls and the poor circuit capacity of the telephone lines.
The cost of hosting web sites locally is very high and subscribers are encouraged to take advantage of free overseas hosting services. A web site development company in Zambia, Dispatch Ltd builds web sites for its local clients and if they can’t afford to pay for web space from local ISPs, they upload the web site to overseas-hosted free web spaces. These free web spaces usually insist on the site carrying its banner adverts that are not relevant to local African users and add on to the information deluge that has come with the Internet.
Establishing a regional Internet backbone would be one way to reduce dependency on Internet backbones located outside Africa. This would result in a regional hub being used by ISPs in different countries. Sharing of equipment costs would result in better services to customers. At the moment this is not possible because the international tariffs charged by local PTOs discourages ISPs to establish multiple international links.
Telecommunication developments that are underway to improve the speed of accessing Internet services involve the setting up of VSAT (very small aperture terminals) that will establish direct links to Europe or US. Such countries as Zambia and Mozambique are developing positive regulatory environments paving the way for the deployment of innovative telecommunications technologies geared towards speeding up Internet traffic.Factors behind the growth
There are significant country differences in the number of Internet users. Zimbabwe clearly has the highest number of Internet users – both those with their own subscriptions and those who have access to the Internet via their work or other public access points such as cybercafes. There is a gradual increase in the number of users in countries such as Zambia, Botswana and Mozambique. The highest number of users in all the countries is located in cities. Generally within the cities, home users with Internet access are the rich and middle classes whose houses are located in the lower density suburbs. In rural areas, where most poor people live, the use of the Internet is certainly beyond their reach and it is even ludicrous to promote its use without addressing urgent problems like poor accommodation, health and lack of telephone connections. These people will for a long time be excluded from this fast moving digital world.
Some of the key factors behind the slow growth of the Internet and hence the growing digital divide in most Southern African countries is the poor telecommunication infrastructure, high Internet access costs, expensive computer and telecommunications equipment and skilled manpower shortages in all ICTs industries. There is also a need to remove the political and economic barriers to the growth of the Internet. Development of infrastructures such as roads and electricity are tied to the creation of a healthy environment to attract foreign investment not just in the ICTs industries, but other sectors. These new groups of users will create sophisticated demands that will drive innovations and an improvement in Internet services.
Basic telephone infrastructure for a majority of the people who live in rural areas is not available. The tele-density is about 1 per 200 inhabitants. The rural communities have the lowest telephone connections and worse still they don't have electricity. The installation of digital infrastructures is now a national priority. The inevitable result of the use of analogue lines is that telephone costs are exorbitantly high and this consequently leads to a high cost of Internet connection. It means that most ordinary people can't afford to use the Internet. Apart from those using the Internet at work, of the ordinary users, only the elite can afford to use the technology. It becomes a luxury when it should be nurtured to make it accessible to a majority of people if its full benefits like access to information and an improvement in communication are to be realised.
There are concerted national and international efforts to build information societies driven by these new technologies in many countries in the Southern African region. There are a number ICTs projects in progress initiated by both national and international organisations. These projects have been driven by the underpinning belief that new technologies in particular the Internet have the potential to bring about socio-economic developments – but uptake is still slow as shown by the statistics in Figure 1. The flow of information across every sector can bring about untold changes as these societies now acknowledge its value in every human activity. Information and new technologies are engines to development and it is their strategic uses that can result in changes in the continent.
Government departments are not always keen to freely publicise their activities and there is a general reluctance on their part to keep their citizens fully informed. This is more serious in rural areas where the majority of the African people live. Most of these people are illiterate and sometimes their level of ignorance about basic health issues for example, has undermined any socio-economic progress in urban towns. Most politicians derive their support from the rural population and it is in their interest to keep them uninformed about the real issues in the country for that will erode their political power base. From the author’s own observation while on the field trip in Southern Africa, political institutions are very wary of the power of the Internet to disseminate information freely and independently. It is the author’s firm belief that proliferation of the Internet in Southern Africa will greatly improve people’s understanding of many issues affecting them and it can prove to be a powerful educational tool, equipping people with relevant information that can strengthen their knowledge base. It can be a costly exercise to spread the Internet right to grassroots levels but a nation that has a deliberate policy to keep its citizens fully informed on national issues – social, political and economic, will reap the benefits in the long run.Impact and benefits of the Internet
As one can surmise from the foregoing, the Internet is still to make a major impact in Southern Africa. What kind of impact is expected to result is still a subject for discussion and the strategies being followed have not yet resulted in the proliferation of the technology. There are other more vexing questions like for example which components of the technology are being developed to achieve what socio-economic changes. Is it the email facility, video conferencing, bulletin boards, web sites making more impact on people and development? There are no clear standard guidelines in place to inform policy-making and interested parties that can be followed to use the new technologies to their maximum potential. Most of the activities end up being shrouded in a lot of talk and when one goes to the ground, there is very little happening. The presumed ‘leap-frog’ or impact will take much longer than expected – maybe another 10 to 20 years and by then the world of the Internet will have advanced so far ahead, increasing the growing digital divide between Africa and the rest of the world!
The two key Internet features that are already impacting on communication and information services in many developed countries are email systems and web sites. These two Internet services have become a major vehicle in exchanging and accessing information. In Southern Africa, just like elsewhere in Africa, traditional sources of information have proved not to be reliable, they are not kept up to date and inaccurate when compared to information services in many developed countries. The information could be there, but it is not in a readily accessible format as it is scattered in many different localities. The culture of cataloguing, archiving and maintaining library resources generated from within the countries has not been fostered. This has greatly undermined traditional information services and only private sector organisations have for many years collated and maintained their own in-house publications and they usually don’t share that information with outside parties.
The individual country statistics in Southern Africa clearly show that only a tiny majority of people's lives has been changed by the new technology. At an individual level, there is a small impact. At community or national levels there is no impact as the uses (application) of the technology are just benefiting a few – the elite. The technology has however moved from being a ‘novel object’ (Menou, 2000) i.e. people know about the technology and all Southern African countries have dial-up Internet access in at least two cities. There is still another level of penetration needed on a national scale. Behind the smokescreen there is very little change.
The Internet hype goes on and is fuelled by sensationalised media coverage without major transformations taking place in the lives of a majority of people. Similar patterns of too much verbal utterances with little action and change on the ground is shown by many conferences and workshops that have been convened focusing on how Africa should be part of the new technological revolution.Fanning Internet Diffusion – people based developments
Lack of information leads to poverty – in fact there is a direct link between socio-economic stagnation and poor information services. If you do not know about it, there is no way you can make a proper decision and many businesses in Southern Africa don’t grow because they readily don’t have trade and market information on their fingertips. New technologies should therefore be used to provide such information that is critical to the survival of the organisation and one can see the potential of mobile devices designed with the African context in mind making huge impacts in the information and communication environments.
Mobile phone devices apart from the PC should be developed to widen access to Internet services. The growing popularity of mobile telephones in Southern Africa is already
solving voice communication problems. Mobile phones are still a luxury for the urban upper and middle classes, but they have penetrated Southern African societies tremendously faster than the Internet. WAP phones are still to make an impact on information services in the whole region, except for South Africa where the mobile phone sector is on the same breadth as in developed countries.
What is also needed are mobile phones designed specifically for use in the Continent and powered by a hybrid of Internet applications that will facilitate access to servers first within the national borders and later the region and overseas. It is hoped that basic and generic nationally combined Intranet services with their own unique Local Wide Web (LWW) servers will bring a taste of the technology to a majority of people that are Internet illiterate (Chivhanga, 2001).
What is however noticeable throughout many people in Southern African countries is that there is a genuine desire to use the Internet whether for business or personal purposes – that is highly positive for the future developments of the technology. There are still many negative and reactionary forces especially people that are still stuck in tradition and view any technological development as another form of Westernisation that is eroding cultural values.
The hunger is there, but what is lacking is the food – the capacity. There is a high level of awareness in most of the countries, where there are a lot of people living overseas who use the Internet to communicate with their relatives back home. These people are also playing a major role in popularising the use of the Internet in their own countries. But governments are not taking a leading role in creating enabling environments for the Internet to be a universal tool for communication and a platform to access information that is a bedrock for building knowledge based societies in economies that are agro-based. There is no trade-off between investing in Internet technologies and other core-development activities. The Internet is a tool that can actually power development in all areas and deserves top priority than what has been shown over the last 10 years in most of the countries in Southern Africa and the rest of Sub-Sahara Africa.References
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