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nettime: TELECOMMUNICATIONS IN AFRICA - Michiel Hegener 1/2

- via Internet in particular 
by Michiel Hegener


The following article about telecommunications in Africa originally
appeared in the 25 November 1995 issue of the Dutch weekly `Vrij
Nederland', in an abbreviated version of about 7700 words, 3000 less
than this one. Telecommunications in Africa is gaining a lot of
momentum these days - especially now that telecommunication is no
longer seen as a luxury for developing countries, but as a prerequisite
for their economic growth. This way of looking at telecommunication in
the developing world started in the beginnings of the 1980's, when the
Internet was still in its infancy; it owes much of it's present
popularity to the rapid growth of datacommunications, via the Internet
in particular. While Africa is bustling with plans for new telecoms
applications using the existing infrastructure, and for grand new
designs, I hope that this article will serve as a general introduction.
Telecommunications is bound to profoundly alter the economic, social
and political landscapes of Africa - probably even more so than in
area's where a good telecommunications infrastructure was already in
place when the current, exiting developments began to change the world
as a whole. Publication of this article, or parts of it, is subject to
my prior consent, but any recipient should feel free to forward it as a
A www-version is available at

Michiel Hegener (, 21 March 1996

"Hahaha," roars Professor Donald Ekong in this spacious villa on the
outskirts of Accra, Ghana, that is home to the Association of African
Universities. The Nigerian Secretary-General [1] has a keen eye for the
funny side of life, including some of the consequences of Africa's poor
telecoms infrastructure. "Haha! Fortunately, we could just read the
Internet address at the top of the fax you sent us. Otherwise, you
would never have got a reply."
Two weeks earlier and a few hours after sending my fax, I had received
an e-mail reply from Accra. Interference on the line had made my fax
illegible except for one or two fragments that luckily included my
e-mail address and allowed Ekong to find out who I was and what my fax
was about. I e-mailed him back that I had heard from various sources
how the AAU had been trying to encourage the use of electronic mail
among its members, and that I wanted to talk to him about it.
Of course, the spread of the Internet in African higher education
cannot be considered in isolation from the development of the Internet
on the continent as a whole. And that inevitably raises the subject of
its telecoms infrastructure, because Internet traffic almost always
travels down ordinary telephone lines, usually those of the public
telephone network. This partly explains why the Internet has
mushroomed in regions of the world with high telephone density: the
network was already in place. It also goes some way to explaining why
less than one percent of the world's Internet traffic currently reaches
Africa: the telephone network hardly exists. Compare Sweden (with 68
telephone connections per 100 inhabitants), the USA (with 57), and the
Netherlands (49) on the one hand to Zimbabwe (with 1.22), Ghana (0.3),
and Chad (0.07) on the other. Not all Internet traffic travels via the
public telephone network. Very busy routes are served by lines with
very large throughput capacity, which are dedicated to Internet traffic
and usually leased from the public network. But these "backbones" of
the Internet are found nowhere in Africa except South Africa. To obtain
a fast Internet connection in Kenya or Cameroon, you need a leased line
to the UK, France, or South Africa. Unfortunately, leased lines are so
expensive that most African Internet traffic travels the cheap
"store-and-forward" way. This is the method used by the AAU, which
sends and receives all its Internet communications via a computer in
South Africa where they are temporarily stored. Every eight hours, the
central computer at the AAU-headquarters in Accra automatically dials
the computer in South Africa, picks up its incoming e-mail messages,
and fires off outgoing ones all over the world.
In Africa, e-mail is not a luxury but a bare necessity - much more so
than in Europe. The main reason, says Ekong, is that other modes of
telecommunication are too costly for African budgets. It takes ten
minutes to read 2,000 words aloud, and a ten-minute voice phone call
from the Netherlands to Ghana costs 34 USD. And although the fax
machine is faster and cheaper (2,000 words in a compact font will take
two minutes to send), the same operation will still cost 7 USD. By
contrast, an e-mail message of 2,000 words (around 12 kilobytes or 96
kilobits in digital terms), sent via a modem with a throughput speed of
14 kilobits per second, will take seven seconds to reach Accra from
Amsterdam, and cost 0,40 USD. What is more, if the telephone line is
good, a 28 k/s modem working at full speed will further halve the
transmission charge - making it 175 times cheaper than a voice phone
call across the same distance. No wonder e-mail is so important to the
developing world - not least for the planet's poorest continent. It is
the only mode of international telecommunication that Africa can afford
on any reasonable scale.
The AAU now unites 119 universities in 42 African countries. Its main
task is to promote cooperation and communication among its members.
Africa did not fail to notice the Internet's breakthrough as a medium
of communication among Western universities in the early 1990s. Ekong
explains: "We conducted a feasibility study, and our conclusion was
that, for African universities, e-mail was the mode of
telecommunication of the future. In June 1995 we linked up all the PCs
at our headquarters in a Novell Network over ethernet cabling,
essentially to improve our own internal capacity. By doing so we also
developed a more reliable data communication infrastructure in order to
support full Internet connectivity in the future - and to gain
experience now. Since then, our technicians have given seminars to uni-
versity staff on setting up a store-and-forward e-mail system. The AAU
is not in the business of installing e-mail for its members - that's
not part of our mandate. We do however give information and advice."
In addition to a fully-functional telephone network, e-mail requires
PCs. The first thing most Dutch people ask when they hear about the
Internet in Africa is: "But they hardly have any PCs there, do they?"
This is a fallacy, says Professor Ekong: "PCs are widespread in African
universities - that's not the problem. The greatest factor limiting the
spread of e-mail in Africa is the lack of technical knowhow, followed
by the faulty telecommunications infrastructure." The AAU's Internet
connection will continue experimentally until the end of 1995. That is
as long as the AAU can pay the bill for phoning South Africa three
times a day. External users such as the University of Ghana and the
British Council will provide experimental support up to then. In
return, the AAU will allow them free e-mail access, making them pay
only the telephone charges between their PCs and the AAU's server
connection to South Africa. Even though things are still at the experi-
mental stage, the advantages of datacommunications are strikingly
obvious. Ekong has rarely lost an e-mail message, and he is favourably
impressed with his two-year experience with the modem. This impression
is echoed by the 40-odd AAU members who now have e-mail. They receive
messages within a day after their transmission - many times faster than
members who still use "snail mail".
When you walk through the main door of the AAU library, at first glance
nothing seems amiss - until you notice the publication years of its
books and magazines. The dog-eared Encyclopedia Britannica, for instan-
ce, dates from 1974; and the magazines are often months, sometimes
years, out of date. In a back office, AAU network manager John
Bart-Plange is giving telephone advice to computer users with problems.
At the end of a call, he says: "Yesterday, I received a postal query
from a lady in Nigeria. She sent it four months ago! The postal
services in Africa are extremely slow, the delays are endless, and many
letters never even reach their destination. Whenever I'm outside Africa
and I see the Internet working - as at a recent conference of the
Internet Society in Hawaii - I know that this is what we need! It's as
clear as day. For education in Africa, you need the Internet - it'll
give you all the information you can possibly desire." The fact that
the AAU has only a store-and-forward connection to the Internet (also
often called a dial-up link) does not mean that the Internet's tens of
thousands of databases and hundreds of thousands of "homepages" are
entirely out of reach; they are just harder to access. The information
that Dutch Internet subscribers dig up using the World Wide Web,
Gopher, and Telnet is available to Bart-Plange by means of automatic
search keys that he sends as e-mail. The next time he contacts South
Africa, they return with the information he has requested, like a dog
fetching the newspaper. "For example, some time ago I needed a software
program for the people here who work with Apple Macintoshes, but it was
unobtainable in Ghana," says Bart-Plange. "I could have ordered it in
America, sent a dollar cheque, and then had to wait for ages. Instead
of that, I did an Archie search. I then received a list in my e-mail of
all the ftp sites where that software could be obtained free. I ordered
it from one of them yesterday, and this morning it was here. I've
already installed it on the Macintoshes."
Requesting database directories is another tactic for exploring the
Internet using a store-and-forward system. Database hosts will e-mail
complete menu structures to Accra, where Bart-Plange then makes a
choice offline. "Database menus also give the size of available files.
So I can decide if the cost justifies downloading a particular file."
Since recently, such decisions have no longer been a daily necessity
for William Tevie, chief systems engineer at Network Computer Systems
and a leading figure among Ghanaian computer professionals [2]. There
are ten telephone lines in Ghana permanently dedicated to datacoms
traffic with Europe. The lines are leased from the Ghanaian PTT; and
some of the datacoms hardware and software was installed by Network
Computer Systems. One of these lines is leased by the Society for
Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), which allows a
Ghanaian bank clerk to see in a matter of seconds whether your credit
card is valid, even if the information is stored in San Francisco or
Zurich. Another dedicated line is leased by SITA, the worldwide network
that lets you book a seat in Beijing on a plane flying from Rio de
Janeiro to Montevideo. Network Computer Systems is primarily a computer
importer. But you get more out of a computer if you use it for
datacoms, too. So the company's acquisition of a leased line to the
Internet was a major step forward. The line went into operation on 21
August 1995, making Ghana the first country in West Africa to have a
permanent Internet connection. Sitting in a villa even more spacious
than the AAU headquarters, Tevie says: "It costs a lot of money: 7,500
dollars a month for a 14 k/s connection to Cambridge, England - which
is our gateway to the Internet - plus the actual Internet linkup
charges and the necessary hardware." A lot of money, but the investment
is already proving profitable. The Ghanaian linkup now has more than
100 users who each pay 100 dollars per month: more than four times as
much as the average Dutch Internet user. "Unaffordable for the average
Ghanaian," Tevie points out. "Our customers are expats, large
companies, and a few Ghanaian researchers." A maximum of seven Internet
users with '.gh' at the end of their e-mail address can call Network
Computer Systems at one time - that's as many modems as they have right
now. There wouldn't be any point in getting any more, because the 14
k/s line fills up as soon as that many Ghanaians all start downloading
World Wide Web pages.
This state of affairs is bound to change. Tevie has big plans.
Negotiations are already under way for Network Computer Systems to
provide Internet connections for Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Cameroon.
And in 1996, Ghana will probably acquire a 64 k/s line dedicated to
datacoms - with new access nodes in the towns of Kumasi and Takoradi if
enough demand builds up. Tevie: "People here still don't realise how
much use and pleasure you can get from the Internet. Mind you, this
realisation only hit the West a couple of years ago. I predict an
explosion in the sale of computers in Ghana. And now that we can offer
the Internet, more and more buyers will be wanting a modem and an
Internet course with it." Network Computer Systems also delivers
complete homepages to order. An Accra-based construction company alrea-
dy has one, so customers in London or Amsterdam can start deciding on
their new Ghanaian headquarters from home. And a Ghanaian fabric
printing company wants a homepage, so that its worldwide customers can
make choices without leaving the house and see the ordered goods before
they arrive.
In a continent where most roads are terrible, where the postal services
will often deliver only to post office boxes, and where there is a
serious information deficit in almost all fields, a large number of
connections to the Internet would be very useful. According to Donald
Ekong, African scientists often hardly know what their colleagues at
other universities are doing, and they lack the capability to
disseminate their own research results throughout Africa. The extreme
shortage of up-to-date academic publications at practically all African
universities could be remedied with a robust Internet link, a powerful
printer, and a plentiful supply of paper.
Wide, reliable channels for international datacoms traffic (not
necessarily via the Internet) could also clear the way for
telemedicine. A doctor in a bush hospital might insert an X-ray photo
of a complicated fracture into a scanner, and the picture would flit
down the telephone line to a PC screen in the West, where a specialist
colleague would give assistance with diagnosis and treatment.
Telemedicine already has a central place in the plans of the World
Health Organisation. The technology, money, and organisation are all
available - all that is missing is the telecoms link to the places
where telemedicine could be really useful. To contact a fellow doctor
in the West, the average doctor in the developing world first needs to
drive at least half a day by jeep to reach a city with a working
Problem-free datacoms connections between the West and the developing
world would soon be paying their own way because thousands of deve-
lopment workers could stay at home. This would save a fortune in air
tickets, tropical salary supplements, all-terrain vehicles, and rented
homes with security staff.
Human rights and democracy also thrive on a good telecommunications
infrastructure. Empirical research by American academic Tom Stonier has
demonstrated that totalitarian regimes are incompatible with a
telephone density of more than twenty lines per 100 inhabitants. [3]
These are just one or two examples. Much longer and more detailed
accounts of this type have been available in the past few years in the
publications of UNESCO, The World Bank, and the International
Telecommunications Union (ITU).
In addition, more and more development cooperation organisations and
ministries are opening their eyes to two new gaps that divide the
world, more or less parallel with the old gap between rich and poor:
the telecommunications gap and the information gap. Maybe it is just
one new gap, now that telecommunications and electronic information are
converging. Whatever the truth, this new global problem was growing for
many years before it was recognised. In the development cooperation
climate of the 1980s and before, a motorbike was considered of more use
to an eight-year-old boy than a good telecoms infrastructure to Africa.
That would come later - it was thought - after the water wells and
women's projects. In the early 1980s, there was a change in Western
thinking on the role of telecommunications in developing countries. In
late 1982, at a Nairobi session of the ITU General Assembly, general
support was given to "the fundamental importance of communications
infrastructures as an essential element in the economic and social
development of all countries" - including the poorest.
It is striking that at that time telecommunications were regarded
essentially as a luxury: one of the pleasant side-effects of progress
to which developing countries are also entitled. The ideal was a
society in which everyone had a moped, a television, a fridge, and a
telephone. In May 1983, the ITU set up an international committee of
world-class telecoms experts to indicate how this goal might be
achieved. The 123-page report of the Maitland Commission, named after
its British chairman Sir Donald Maitland, was published in January
1985. According to the report, entitled The Missing Link,
telecommunications were not the fruit of economic development - quite
the reverse, in fact. The report claimed that a good telecoms
infrastructure was a condition for economic progress. However, its
conclusions had little impact on Dutch development cooperation policy.
Until 1994, there was no cover for "telecommunications" in its yearly