Date: Thu, 23 Dec 1999 11:40:18 -0600 (CST)
From: IGC News Desk <>
Subject: TECHNOLOGY: Internet Brings Africa Closer to Information Age
Article: 85459
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Internet Brings Africa Closer to Information Age

IPS, 20 December 1999

HARARE Dec 20 (IPS)—The internet has provided a lifeline for thousands of Africans seeking to join the information age by providing distance learing facilities, remote health centres and an international market for craftsmen.

Africa, however, remains the region with the least number of Internet hosts and users and a radical new approach is needed if the continent is to attain its goal of attaining a sustainable information society by the year 2010, technology experts agree.

Still there is cause for hope.

Programmes such as the African Virtual University, begun in 1997, are in full swing; Women'sNet in South Africa is giving a voice to the continent's marginalized women while Zimbabwe's Learning Networks for Teachers links teacher training colleges and other educational institutions.

All these programmes demonstrate the power of new technology to support development in Africa.

But experts, monitoring the development of the World Wide Web (WWW), say what is missing on the majority of African-based web sites is relevant, easily accessible, interactive and home-grown content.

Web content should be seen to be meeting the information needs of local people where traditional information sources are failing to do so, notes Mike Chivhanga head of an internet studies research group at Britain's City University.

The value of information is seen in its use. If people can't have access to essential information for decision-making then we have serious problems, says Chivhanga, speaking in a discussion forum to promote the development of Africa's Web resources.

As information consumers become more selective and demand quality and reliability they do not want to loose time on sites offering incomplete, inaccurate, outdated, or difficult to access content. Therefore, Africa's slowly growing Internet sector needs to become fiercely competitive, say the experts.

However, a study by Internet group Wo Yaa ( and the UN Educational and Cultural Scientific Organisation (UNESCO) titled 'Top50 Survey' says that content on African sites is relatively poor, with the exception of public information sites.

Education, sciences and community development sites have the lowest content notes the report released this month.

Despite a very strong growth in the number of Web sites and with the exception of South Africa, the number of Web sites is still low, according to the UNESCO report.

This primarily is due to the lack of appropriate Internet/computers/telecom infrastructures, the lack of national regulations, the lack of expertise in the area of Web design, content production and management and the low awareness of the benefits that the Internet can bring,

The report notes that the content of African Web sites is focussed largelt on the presentation of an organization and its activities.

Maintenance of web sites is often poorly managed due to the lack of resources, expertise and adequate processes. The interactivity between visitors and owners of the sites is often limited to e- mail with limited use of Web interactivity, it says.

Limited content is partly explained by the lack of copyright ownership of African material a big chunk of which belongs to Western publishers and universities.

Most African Web sites do not use digital content, relying mainly on paper-based information production processes such as scanning.

Africans must participate in the production of information because their contribution is critical to maintaining the quality and relevance of information from the region, declares the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) in a document titled Globalization and the Information Economy: Challenges and Opportunities for Africa. y For example, Ghanaians world-wide have established marketable websites selling a variety of products and promoting their culture in the process and indirectly contributing to their tourist industry.

Another area in which Africa can excel is the commercial exploitation of its rich traditional or tacit knowledge...The fact that in most cases this knowledge has not been codified, and is largely informal and regional in its application has undermined its perceived value and legitimacy.

Africa's 780 million people share 152,000 Internet hosts or 0.3 percent of the world's total according to the Internet Software Consortium. The next least served region is Latin America with 1.3 percent of the world's 56 million hosts.

Another factor harming Africa's quest for an information society is a severe brain drain that begins with inadequate national universities. According to ECA estimates, more than 30,000 Africans with doctorate degrees now live outside the continent.

While the continent has perennially complained of biased, negative and uneven portrayal in the international media, analysts say these same complaints will persist in cyberspace if Africa fails to develop a powerful Web presence.

At Women'sNet, one of the first steps identified to build women's capacity to use information communication technologies was to develop a practical framework for sourcing, organising and making information available centrally from a website in a friendly and accessible way, notes Sonja Boezak in a contribution to the Africa web page design discussion forum.

As a result a four-day interactive WWW-skills development workshop was held with gender information resource people from a range of organisations inside as well as outside South Africa, says Boezak, Women'sNet Information Co-ordinator.

The outcome was an online resource ( that addresses an information need around advocating and lobbying for women's equality.

Under the African Information Society Initiative adopted at an ECA Conference of Ministers of Development and Planning in 1996, Africa seeks to have built its information and communication network by 2010.

Several—mainly donor-funded—programmes have brought full Internet connectivity to all 54 countries in Africa, with the exception of Eritrea. In 1994 there only four African nations boasted Internet access.

But, according to the Top50 Survey, access to Web sites remains slow with a relatively high rate of unavailability. African sites also lack Web-based revenue such as advertising and they are forced to rely on subsidies, which are not sustainable.