Challenges Abound in the Quest to Connect Africa

By Peter Galli  |  Posted 2007-06-07 Print this article Print

Reporter's Notebook: On almost every block of every street, you will find a "telecenter," which provides a range of telephone and communication services. These centers are to Burkina Faso what Starbucks is to the United States.

OAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso, West Africa—A veritable whos who of West and Central African governments are starting to arrive in this small West African country for the regions first Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Best Practices Forum. The conference, which is being hosted over June 6 through 8 by Blaise Compaoré, the president of Burkina Faso, together with Microsoft, the African Development Bank and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, will give participants an opportunity to share their perspectives on the use of ICT for economic and social development. Delegates will also share their experience of proven models in this regard, and create a road map of practical steps that governments can take to achieve their development goals.
I arrived in Ouagadougou earlier this week and am staying at the Sofitel Ouaga 2000, which I have learned was built by Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, the de facto leader of Libya, with Libyan financing.
Since my arrival I have been talking to delegates from the African Development Bank and Microsoft, and one of the most notable take-aways for me from these informal discussions is the passion and commitment that exists around the concept of using technology to better the lives of the citizens of this vast continent. I have also heard about how even the traditional challenges of the lack of infrastructure are being addressed through novel approaches like mobile computer training units that drive from one rural area to another, and initiatives to provide entrepreneurs with assistance to set up small telecommunications centers and to buy, run and maintain generators to provide power within their communities. As I was determined to see for myself, first-hand, exactly what the infrastructure on the ground was like and what connectivity options citizens actually had in this capital city—where more than 10 percent of the countrys 14 million citizens live, I rented a cab for the day and took a tour of the city center. I was not that hopeful, though, after reading a World Links report which said that technology integration had been slow in the country, with less than half of one percent of the population, or about 53,000 people, having access to the Internet, only 1 percent with access to telephones.   It was 116 degrees, with nary a cloud in sight, and the air conditioning in the beat-up old car just could not meet that challenge, so the only option was to roll down the windows and experience the heat, noise, dust and chaos of this vibrant city head on. I was unprepared for the fact that just about everyone rides a scooter, and so it is not uncommon to see elderly ladies, in brightly colored traditional dress, whizzing by, with one hand on the horn, while hawkers selling telephone cards assail you at every possible opportunity. Read more here about Microsoft offering $3 software packages for developing countries. The most striking thing for me was the prevalence of hole-in-the-wall Internet cafes in the back of shanty-like structures on the streets, as well as more sophisticated cafes with multiple machines and wireless and Blue-tooth connectivity. Some of these cafes also offer workspaces, equipped with desks, DSL and other productivity amenities. The cost for an hour of relatively fast connectivity at the more upmarket cafes stood between $1 and $2. But, to put that in perspective, some 40 percent of the citizens of this country earn less than $1 a day, with some 60 percent earning less than $2 a day, making the issue of affordable access so critical. You will also find, on almost every block of every street, a "telecenter," which provides a range of telephone and communication services. These centers are to Burkina Faso what Starbucks is to the United States. Next Page: A Question of Access

Peter Galli has been a financial/technology reporter for 12 years at leading publications in South Africa, the UK and the US. He has been Investment Editor of South Africa's Business Day Newspaper, the sister publication of the Financial Times of London.

He was also Group Financial Communications Manager for First National Bank, the second largest banking group in South Africa before moving on to become Executive News Editor of Business Report, the largest daily financial newspaper in South Africa, owned by the global Independent Newspapers group.

He was responsible for a national reporting team of 20 based in four bureaus. He also edited and contributed to its weekly technology page, and launched a financial and technology radio service supplying daily news bulletins to the national broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which were then distributed to some 50 radio stations across the country.

He was then transferred to San Francisco as Business Report's U.S. Correspondent to cover Silicon Valley, trade and finance between the US, Europe and emerging markets like South Africa. After serving that role for more than two years, he joined eWeek as a Senior Editor, covering software platforms in August 2000.

He has comprehensively covered Microsoft and its Windows and .Net platforms, as well as the many legal challenges it has faced. He has also focused on Sun Microsystems and its Solaris operating environment, Java and Unix offerings. He covers developments in the open source community, particularly around the Linux kernel and the effects it will have on the enterprise.

He has written extensively about new products for the Linux and Unix platforms, the development of open standards and critically looked at the potential Linux has to offer an alternative operating system and platform to Windows, .Net and Unix-based solutions like Solaris.

His interviews with senior industry executives include Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Linus Torvalds, the original developer of the Linux operating system, Sun CEO Scot McNealy, and Bill Zeitler, a senior vice president at IBM.

For numerous examples of his writing you can search under his name at the eWEEK Website at


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