More than US$50 billion of largely private sector investment has been pledged to develop Africa’s burgeoning information and communication technology (ICT) sector at a summit attended by African heads of state and more than 1,000 representatives from the industry.
This growth will help the continent achieve its ICT UN Millennium Development Goals three years before the target date 2015, the Secretary-General of the UN International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Hamadoun Touré, said at the two-day Connect Africa conference in Kigali, which opened on 29 October.
The summit, which swelled from the 500 participants expected by organisers to more than 1,000 investors, and included African leaders and communications ministers, looked at ways of replacing aid with economic development through the growth of ICT.
"For the past 50 years of African independence we have been talking about help, assistance, and we did not go anywhere with that," said Touré. "We are well aware of one thing. No one will get rich from handouts and charity. That is why we are here: we are saying we mean business."
Delegates at the conference lauded the continent’s rapid growth in certain areas of the ICT sector and the investor confidence this has brought.
Africa has experienced inconsistent growth in internet capacity, but the use of mobile phones has exploded across the continent, providing an invaluable social and business tool for hundreds of millions of people.
According to ITU, there were just 16 million subscribers in 2000, but this figure had risen to 136 million by 2005.
The GSM Association, which represents 70 mobile service providers encompassing three billion subscribers worldwide, said its members would double the amount of investment in sub-Saharan Africa to US$50 billion over the next five years to extend coverage to 90 percent of the population.
Community mobile connections
"The mobile industry sees Africa as a major area for development in the next five to 10 years," Tom Phillips, GSM’s chief government and regulatory affairs officer told IRIN.
Phillips said the focus of investors would not be confined to Africa’s upper and middle classes, but extended to remote villages with agriculture-based economies.
"What we’re doing is developing programmes for shared village phone services where up to 500 people can have access to the same phone and have their own voicemail box and get connected with their family, get connected with business," Phillips said.
"Ultimately, it creates the employment, the economic growth and development that will bring that basic infrastructure of electricity and roads to people."
During the summit, industry leaders expressed confidence that Africa could soon boast world-class communications capabilities.
"We are not going to bridge the digital divide," Anthony Von See, the Vice President of Cisco Systems told IRIN. "We are going to leapfrog over it."
Cisco has set up networking academies across Africa to train men and women to work in the sector. Von See said development across the continent has been paralysed by a lack of trained professionals and the so-called ‘brain-drain’.
Africa – a new customer base
Companies stressed that their efforts should not be viewed as charity, but as aggressive attempts to open up new markets across Africa.
"We have seen time and again that once those fundamental investments are made, there’s a whole series of new customers that are potentially developed," said Michael Rawdings, vice president of Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential group, which, among other things, works to develop technologies and software for youth in impoverished villages in Africa and Asia.
Delegates warned that the biggest challenge was a perception among investors that African nations are plagued by insecurity and corruption.
However, the summit’s organisers, including the ITU, the World Bank and the African Union, said they viewed the sheer numbers of participants at the event as a sign that Africa had at last drawn genuine interest from investors.
"Africa," said ITU’s Touré at the conclusion of the summit, "is open for business."