Challenges Abound in the Quest to Connect Africa

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.

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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.

/zimages/3/28571.gifRead 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.

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