In spite of tremendous growth in telecommunications service delivery in Africa, greater percentage of rural populace in the region is yet to enjoy telecom access, due mostly because rural areas are not commercially viable.
Governments in Africa have attempted to lure operators in providing service to rural dwellers through incentive such as tax waivers and provision of telecom infrastructure to no avail.
Against this backdrop that a report dealing with the broader issues of rural connectivity in Africa launched last week by the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO). The report reveals that a number of novel and multi-stakeholder partnerships, unique business models and innovative technologies are, for the first time, paving the way to connect many of Africa’s rural communities, on a sustainable, profitable basis.
The report provides evidence that contrary to some assumptions that the private sector can lead the effort to connect Africa’s rural populations, the experiences of industrialized countries like Canada, the Unites States and Australia is that governments have had to lead the effort, but in close collaboration with the private sector and local communities. The report calls for Commonwealth African governments to implement their national ICT policies as part of a wider national development strategy and to make faster in-roads into rural ICT rollout through public private peoples partnerships (PPPPs), with local communities playing a more pivotal role.
The report finds that the key to successful partnerships between the public and private sectors and other ICT stakeholders is to encourage local ownership, thereby nurturing the community’s enthusiasm for effective connectivity and ensuring the sustainability of ICT investments.
The CTO study found that whereas Commonwealth countries such as Malaysia and India have made significant in-roads in rural connectivity, Commonwealth African countries like Sierra Leone and Zambia are lagging behind in rural access, leading to poor and overall slow economic growth. The report finds that although recent years have seen dramatic growth in penetration rates in some African countries, especially through mobile networks, the continent’s aggregate penetration rate is still less than 20 percent.
"For Internet access and use, the figures are well below 5 percent for most of Africa. Over 60 percent of Africa’s population lives in unconnected rural areas and represent an untapped market, holding enormous potential for growth for service providers, equipment manufacturers and the entire telecommunications industry", the report claims.
By way of conclusion the report calls for ICT policy provisions that focus on universal and rural access, in order to affirm the commitment of governments to providing basic ICT services to poor, isolated and marginalized communities . There is also the need for continued incremental and a more methodical process of liberalization and privatization of the telecommunications sector in many African countries, and a variety of regulatory safeguards need to be put in place to foster competition and promote a conducive environment for rural connectivity.
Commenting on the initiative, Dr. Ekwow Spio-Garbrah chief executive officer of CTO said that the evidence they have accumulated in the course of the 9-month study demonstrates that most of Africa’s rural populations could well be connected over the next decade. "This is partly because an unusual confluence of sounder policies, relevant legislation, improving regulatory practices, the establishment of universal access and service agencies and the revenues they have acquired, new technologies and business models, and the availability of funding from a plethora of sources, all make it now possible for most of Africa to be connected wirelessly within the next ten years," he said. According to Spio-Garbrah, who is a former Minister of Communications in Ghana, ‘the pilot project models we have found to work best are where a combination of public institutions and private ICT operators or equipment vendors have found it possible to involve local groups or communities in structuring, ownership or management of the ICT assets, to ensure their more effective use and sustainable operation. We hope that more companies will join the CTO as we move to the second phase of this important initiative to replicate and scale-up a number of selected model projects, so that the benefits of ICTs can be enjoyed by millions more in Africa’. "Connecting the majority of Africans to the Information Super Highway is necessary if African countries are to benefit from the global knowledge revolution," he said.
The project was undertaken under the auspices of the Commonwealth Connects programme, which involves collaboration with a number of Commonwealth agencies, including the Commonwealth Secretariat. It is supported by the International Telecommunication Union, as part of efforts to help unearth market opportunities, enhance technological advancements, as well as accelerate social development and economic growth by connecting rural communities in the 18 Commonwealth African countries.
The first phase of the project was aimed at discovering how telecommunications regulation, policy, legislation, and operational, technological and financial models affect the potential for cost-effective rural connectivity in the 18 African Commonwealth countries. The research compiled similar information on initiatives and best practices of five selected non-African countries such as USA, Canada, Australia, Malaysia and India, countries that have enjoyed greater success in connecting their rural populations. Subsequently the initiative is to devise effective dissemination channels for the report and identify 10 pilot projects for adaptation and replication to form the basis for the second phase of the project.
Can it happen in Nigeria?
Just as the telecom sector in India is fully liberalized and fastest growing so also is Nigeria’s. The question now is why is Nigeria moving at a slow pace? Currently, all the successes recorded in the sector are essentially an urban phenomenon. The four digital mobile operators have concentrated their activities in high density areas. Locations without access are either remote or are relatively poor communities. This has therefore affected some regions more than others.
A Nigerian Communications Commission NCC/World Bank study has looked at the market potential for telecoms services in the country. The study looked at a range of variable including geo-demographic, socio-economic and infrastructure data. It concludes that the entire country is reachable and that a significant market scope exists. The study conducted ranking among states. The most challenging northern states are typically low socio-economically.
They have low revenue potential, poorest infrastructure and highest cost for telecoms development. However, some challenging southern states exist, but are less difficult to serve. These states usually are small in size: have potential to cover cost, and have good chances of returning a profit.
So far, digital mobile licensees have been slow in expanding into rural areas, despite the fact that the NCC requires them to invest part of their income in setting up services in the rural communities. Market assessments suggest that about 22 states will need some form of incentive to attractive mobile operators. The universal Access fund (UAF) operated by the stakeholders (operators, government and donors) is expected to be a vehicle to deliver these incentives.
Over two thirds of Nigeria’s population resides in rural area. Increasingly, poverty in the country is wearing a rural face. From 28.3 percent in 1980 poverty among the rural population grew to 51.4 percent in 1985, has since risen to 69.8 percent.
Little wonder that global consultancies and analysis believe that if only the operators could convert the challenges in rural Nigeria to opportunities, Nigeria would be an exciting story for other countries of the world to emulate.