Bridging the Digital Divide in Uganda (Africa)

Many experts have said that trade is the solution for Africa to develop.

I can’t agree more.

The greatest challenge facing Uganda and Africa, as a whole is to make its people participants in the global marketplace and thereby unlock it’s true potential.

Furthermore, there can be no doubt that the ability to transfer and process information quickly, conveniently and cost effectively has become the prerequisite for economic growth and global competitiveness. That trade is now exclusively dependent on the adoption and integration of modern forms of communication and information.

With developed nations dominating in ICT and Uganda lagging behind, this leaves the country at a major disadvantage.

According to a recent report by Makerere University, Uganda – home to 26 million people – has just 200,000 computers, about 1.2 million have access to phones.

And these numbers are concentrated in the capital city Kampala.

For the rural people who live on less than $1 a day, the information revolution has completely bypassed them.

No country can avoid embracing the information age if it is to be competitive
within the international arena.

I have heard people argue that ICT is expensive, a luxury in Africa. Problems like food security, safe water and sanitation, healthcare and education are still looming. Is it realistic to talk about ICT in these circumstances?

Kathy Foley of Nua Internet Surveys summed up the dilemma rather well:
“The problems of the developing world are not one-dimensional… For these countries, it should not be a choice between food, shelter and education on one hand and access to communications technologies on the other. If they get the technology alone, they will go hungry. If they only succeed in feeding and sheltering their citizens without developing an adequate communications infrastructure, then these countries will always be “Third World” as they will never be able to compete fairly with industrialised countries. A holistic approach is needed”.

Holistic obviously has the right ring to it, but how will it work in practice?

Here are a few suggestions

Information kiosks with posters, videos, and literature in local languages can be set up where people could access information that is relevant to them.

Public phones could be set up in trading centres – farmers could use phones to get information from a local entrepreneur about prices in several local agricultural markets, rather than relying, as they do, on the word of the middleman.

Rural hospitals can be connected to the Internet and the few doctors there could email x-rays and laboratory results to their counterparts in bigger hospitals for consultation.

In all this cases it is important for the private sector to extend their services to this areas, and government has to give them incentives to do so.

Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs), Community Based Organisations (CBO) and civil society’s role would also have to help increase awareness of ICT in rural Africa.

Now for the hard questions…

· How exactly will digital infrastructure help African economies grow? What will it do that water pumps or good roads can’t?

· Where will the skills (technical and managerial) come from to operate an upgraded digital infrastructure?

· How will African economies grow to enable them to service the digital infrastructure? Why’s it going to be different this time? Why won’t say a billion dollars sunk into ICT turn into the digital equivalent of potholed roads?

· How will African governments and external funders avoid a large “scoop” of the funds “wandering off” into the hands of corrupt officials or politicians?

We want it to work but remain haunted by these questions. If you can provide answers to them, please kindly go to [] and leave your responses. A prize (yet to be devised) will be given for the best contribution.

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