Can East African countries bridge the digital divide?

February 12, 2014

East African countries of Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania have the potential to make strides in crating jobs for millions of youths and reduce poverty levels as well providing education and addressing a wide range of other pressing issues in the region that has seen more than half the population embrace mobile money transfer and banking wholeheartedly compared to the commercial banks that are disliked in the region for their prohibitive charges. Bridging the digital divide in the East African countries will be a boon for economic development and the fostering of social capital. A researcher working for Boston Consulting Group recently explained to me how closing the digital divide could address pressing issues such as disaster management as more citizens are connected to the information and technological applications that most East Africans take fro granted. According to the researcher, formulating the right environment for such innovation is not a cakewalk, but it is one that merits stakeholders’ priority. Given technological solutions increasing potential to provide social and economic benefits to East Africans, bridging the digital divide has become a priority for governments around the region. In Kenya, ICT’s ability to connect a vast and diverse population at a speed faster than traditional infrastructure has created hundreds of thousands of direct and indirect jobs to a country with chronic shortage of employment.

Use of technology in the country of 40 million people has enhanced public services such as education and health care and promoted entrepreneurship through different ICT hubs most notable at the famous Nairobi’s iHub. As a result, Kenya has seen huge growth of the small and medium enterprises that now dominate her business landscape. In Rwanda, the home of technology adoption in the region, public services has seen a transformation through the use mobile applications and other software in health sector, Tourism and education sector as well. In Tanzania, the private sector technology has changed the way information services for small businesses and financial services such as microfinance is handled and has also enhanced training and skill services in country with chronic shortage of high end skills. As a developing region with immense potential, East African countries boasts more than 90% gross primary and 60% secondary enrollment ratio compared to lower percentages in other sub Saharan African regions. No doubt that the potential of mobile phones as a means of bridging the digital gap is huge, as all EAC governments and businesses around the region have realized. In addition, mobile phone coverage has reached more than 80% of East African community’s territory as of mid 2012.

Luckily, bureaucrats at the East African Community headquarter in Arusha, Tanzania have acknowledged the need to press key stakeholders and investors in connect the regions far-flung citizens and enterprises. According to a study conducted two years ago, the region’s areas of focus under ICT are harmonizing of regulation and policies, combating crime related to use mobile technology, human resources and science and technology, as well as infrastructure, which could help reduce the sky high roaming charges in the region. In Tanzania, infrastructure development has dominated the focus of ICT but there is also need to focus in human resources and science and technology, especially with regard to innovation, which in my opinion will be key to Tanzania making great strides in ICT development in the region. Overall, the governments in the region have acknowledged priorities such as the need to build capacity, harmonize different layers of society, expand data centers, encourage digital content industries among other laudable developments that the sectors badly needs. Innovative ideas have so far enabled inclusivity in East African region by boosting access and affordability to numerous m- government and e-government programs, which have essentially provided government services to assist in the tedious tasks that require huge costs, ample time and validation processes. However time to cover those who have no access to such is now and not in the future.

Contador Harrison