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ITU Telecom Africa 2004: Advantage Africa?

By Thrishni Subramoney, Highway Africa News Agency, reporting from Cairo

Competition between market players and independent communications regulation are the keys to Africa’s IT castle. That was the message for delegates at the opening forum session of ITU Telecom Africa 2004 held in Cairo last month.

However, just as crucial a point for the keynote speakers – ITU Secretary General Yoshio Utsumi, Ugandan Minister of Works, Housing and Communications, John Nasasira and Tunisia’s Transport and Technology Minister, Moutasser Ouaili – seemed to be the question of just how advantaged Africa really is.

Armed with a statistics-laden slide presentation, Utsumi pushed the positive line about African ICT growth, pointing to the phenomenal growth of mobile networks in region (the cellphone market in Africa has grown by 1000 percent in the last five years, according to the latest ITU statistics). “The ICT sector in Africa is healthier than ever before,” he stressed, “It is the fastest growing market for the Internet and mobile phones.”

Utsumi says the “building blocks” for Africa’s growth has been the increase in competition between telecommunication service providers and the mushrooming of independent regulators in the region. ITU reports say that since 1993, the number of countries that have a competitive telecommunications market has almost tripled, from 16 to 41.

Nasasira – who took the stage after Utsumi – was not as glowing in his analysis. He acknowledged the growth in the sector, but he pointed out that it was far too early to be jubilant.

“I agree with the Secretary-General, that much has been done in Africa, but let’s not forget the challenges and constraints we still face. More than 50 percent of Africans have never made a phone call,” he said.

Nasasira says there has to be a number of changes on the continent before Africa can make the best of its apparent “advantage”. The changes included social and cultural reforms to ensure that all Africans regardless of race, gender or ethnicity have ICT skills.

He stressed that the biggest problem in Africa was a lack of affordable resources. “Over 50 percent of people on the continent earn less than one dollar a day and 40 percent are unemployed,” he said.

Nevertheless, Nasasira still believes in the importance of the burgeoning mobile networks on the continent. He says that when he took up office as a minister in Uganda in 1999, he often faced criticism about the fact that there were more mobile connections than fixed line connections in the country.

“I was told this like I should feel guilty,” he laughed, “But mobile phones are appropriate for the way we live in scattered villages and fixed lines are far more costly in terms of infrastructure.”

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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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