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close this bookThe Courier N 152 - July - August 1995 - Dossier: NGO's - Country Reports: Belize, Malawi (EC Courier, 1995, 104 p.)
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Ringing the changes in Africa

by Aida Opuku-Mensah Brako

'While the First World races into the information age on the information superhighways,' says a recent report for the United Nations, 'nearly four billion of the world's five billion people still lack the most basic access to simple telecommunications.' Gemini News Service reports on African attempts to catch up.

Sub-Saharan Africa has about the same number of phones as Tokyo and is in danger of being left even further behind as the industrialised world cruises into the information superhighway. Even though the role of telecommunications has often been left out of the development debate, stud)" by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the World Bank show a direct link between telecommunications and economic growth.

Leonard Subulwa, Zambia's Minister for the Western Province, points out that to communicate with officials in his constituency, 'I have to drive 250 kiLomes because the country's telecommunications network do" not serve this district.'

A World Bank study in Uganda in 1983 showed that 2000 local government officials made 40 000 trips a year to handle administrative matters that could have been dealt with by mail or telephone if these services had been available. The study estimated that about 250 person years of government time were wasted every year, at a cost of some $600 000. 12 years later, the situation is no better. Inadequate telecommunications services in Uganda still translate into high costs in time and transport.

Lack of coherent strategy

Africa's telecommunications institutions have failed to develop coherent strategies. This is partly because PANAFTEL, the continental body created by the ITU, has been headquartered in Zaire -a country that has been in virtual anarchy for years. Furthermore, decades of under-investment have caused the deterioration of existing systems, which, in any case, are hardly available outside towns.

Most national telecom organisations are running at a loss. Employees sometimes ask for bribes to connect lines rather than instituting a proper billing system. The Swedish Embassy in Lusaka recently received an itemised bill totalling 17 million kwacha, including a four-hour-call to London on an unconnected line!

Almost all equipment is imported and technical assistance is uncoordinated. The effect, says Zambian telecoms engineer Edwin Hanamwinga, is networks with a mish-mash of incompatible equipment. He continues: 'Our international network is made up of Swedish and Japanese systems whilst our transit centres have French and Japanese. Our rural areas have Norwegian crossbar systems. However, you cannot interface either the international or transit systems with the rural ones. The equipment is not complementary.'

The failure of telecommunications monopolies to meet even basic needs has resulted in a huge unmet demand for telephones. Lusaka resident, Irene Phiri, has a child with cerebral palsy and an invalid mother, both of whom occasionally need emergency medical treatment. Yet she has been unable to get a phone and so has to make frequent trips home during office hours. 'I've applied for a telephone since 1991, 'she says. 'Whenever I chase up my application I'm told: 'Well madam, there are people living in your area who have been waiting for a phone since 1977. So why are you so impatient ?"

The situation is repeated elsewhere in Africa. Ghanaian businessman Kwabena Akunnor says his business associates have no phones, so he is forced to drive round to their offices in Accra on the off-chance that they will be there.

To the World Bank, the root of the problem is clear: state monopoly. And its answer is equally clear: privatisation. Already, the supply of handsets by private companies has been introduced in many countries on the continent. The Bank is the largest multilateral financier of telecommunications projects in Africa, and has made reforms and restructuring of the sector a condition for lending. 'Telecommunications is increasingly seen as a vital component of the structural adjustment process,' says the Bank. 'Efficient information flows are essential to the success of efforts to liberalise and consequently to expand.'

Restructuring

Restructuring includes separation of the postal and telecommunications services and their conversion into independent business entities. For instance, Ghana's former Posts and Telecommunications Corporation is now two organisations, Ghana Posts and Ghana Telecoms.

But though restructuring is geared towards enhancing competition, efficiency and attracting foreign investment, it is proving a turbulent process. For a start, there is no guarantee that foreign investment will increase because Africans are competing with Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. The continent's debt burden discourages capital flow, and in any case, most African states have weak, or non-existent, capital markets. In addition, restructuring needs to be supervised by an independent body capable of developing effective regulatory mechanisms. Many countries are still grappling to establish such a regulatory framework, which requires a delicate balance of technical, economic and legal factors. But multidisciplinary expertise is exactly what Africa lacks.