CTO's Tim Unwin: Public, private sector balance needed for African ICT development

The Commonwealth Telecommunications Organization's CEO says infrastructure is key

With more than 70 percent of Africa's population living in rural areas, access to broadband service in remote regions was a key issue at the recently concluded Commonwealth Telecommunications Organization (CTO) meeting in Sierra Leone. In an interview in Freetown, CTO and CEO Tim Unwin shared his views on the state of rural broadband connectivity in Africa, the main factors hindering its reach to rural areas and what his organization plans to do to achieve wider connectivity.

IDG News Service: As far as broadband connectivity in rural areas is concerned, what is the situation in Africa and where does the continent stand in respect to the world?

Tim Unwin: I think one of the lessons we'll take away from this event is that huge areas all over Africa do not have connectivity. One reads about the explosion of connectivity with the use of mobile devices across Africa but the reality is that many areas are still unconnected. There are policies that are going to actually lead to that connectivity. I always draw attention to the Chinese example where 10 to 15 years ago, not more than 5 percent of villages had electricity and now they claim that 98 percent of the Chinese population has access to mobile telephony. It's possible to do it. China is a tough country. It is possible to deliver this across Africa. The question is how we do that. I think what needs to be empowered is bringing closer understanding between governments, civil society and the private sector. In terms of connectivity in Africa, it is not as advanced, not as extensive as most other parts of the world.

IDGNS: Is this where Africa should be at this point in time?

Unwin: The question relates to a wider development context. As you are well aware, Africa has more of the least developed countries in the Commonwealth and that's a bigger issue than just the field of ICTs. I think one thing that could have made and should make a huge difference is solving Africa's energy agenda. A vast part of Africa does not have electricity and without electricity, you can't have ICTs. So, innovative energy solutions are very important. I think there needs to be a reconsideration of the balance of interest between the private sector and governments. A bit of the debate was touched on here. Many people say the private sector in some parts of Africa are making huge profits out of ICTs. Some of the private sector says the regulators and governments are trying to take a huge share. So it is getting into a dialogue to get the balance right. For me, governments are responsible for delivering on the key needs of the society in terms of health, education and actually ensuring that a whole lot of people have access to these benefits. That may be a little bit old-fashioned but it's a view I hold very strongly. Governments have a fundamental important role to play and ICTs can contribute to education and to health as part of the wider development package.

IDGNS: To solve Africa's energy problem, what do you think could be done?

Unwin: I think different solution is going to work in different places. I am a great believer in working to find local solutions. We've seen work being done on micro hydro and small-scale hydro. It is very difficult to use solar to deliver on the scale one might want. There are not really good solutions for a large school, for example, or hospital. In some places, wind pipes might be appropriate. But fundamentally, the issue is around a national grid being in place. I think in the last 20 years, many Western donors have rather turned their back on infrastructure projects. But we need to build roads, power grids etc.

I get back to China's experience. In the white paper on international development published last year, China did place particular emphasis on infrastructure. China's growth has been based on getting infrastructure right. That's not to say Western countries' interests in governance and democracy is wrong, far from it. But you do need to provide a basic level of services that people can then build on to use the energy to take ICTs forward.

IDGNS: You mentioned something about strategic partnership in your remarks earlier, to start later this year, can you explain a little more about it?

Unwin: Our new strategic plan has it that CTO will act as a broker or a godfather for one or two multi-stakeholder partnerships in a year. We have expertise in helping members, be it those in the private sector or government, to actually implement effective multi-stakeholder partnerships. A lot of people talk about partnerships and they still go through the mistakes people made 10 years ago. That's a bad use of scarce resources. I believe that we have the potential to really help them deliver partnerships more effectively. Our commitment is we will help people set up partnerships; we will give them models and practices to do so; we will broker and foster them to ensure that regular quarterly meetings are held and all partners come together and thereby help to contribute to their effective implementation.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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