Where is Africa in the Expanding Trajectories of Internet

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Tunji Olaopa

Crafting the article’s title as a question is both rhetorical and substantive. But the danger is that as a rhetorical question, it is assuming a lot. Of course, everyone, at a superficial level, knows that the Internet is a dynamic technological innovation that has become very significant to the ways we imagine our contemporary world today. The Internet makes a lot of things possible. For instance, at the entrepreneurial level, the Internet is critical to the networking of business ideas in a manner that is not limited by space and time. My business proposal, for instance, can be forwarded to a collaborator in Germany who in turn can ask for its assessment in Switzerland, and funding for the proposal can be sought in the United States, all without any of us having any physical contact. The Internet has therefore become an electronic communication highway that generates interdependence while providing transformational possibilities. There is no doubt that the development of the Internet has transformed humanity’s potentials to overcome its limitations. But however significant this understanding is, it is still superficial as to the full extent of the possibilities that the Internet possesses, especially for development purposes at a continental level like Africa and its many underdeveloped states.

At a distinctly significant Roundtable coming up between May 2-4, 2017, a critical segment of the African academic community as well as a critical mass of Internet practitioners will be converging at Ibadan, under a collaborative effort between Google and the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP), to deliberate on the crucial relationship between governance, Internet research and Internet policy to Africa’s development efforts in the twenty first century. At least, one objective is to initiate a discourse that goes beyond a surface appreciation of the potentialities of the Internet to exploring the deeper capacities it possesses for transforming Africa into a strong developmental continent with formidable and thriving digital economies. The starting point of this conference is to tease out how the Internet and the lack of an effective Internet policy complicate Africa’s development vision and efforts. The theme of the Roundtable itself foregrounds a compelling development narrative: “Strenghtening Internet Policy through Theoretically Grounded Research.”

Africa’s development impasse is a protracted complexity that has so many hierarchies of difficulties. One of the most fundamental is the inability of the continent to convert plausible development ideas and paradigms to transformational policy that could be the springboard for the empowerment of Africans. From the Lagos Plan of Action to NEPAD, there have been myriads of development agenda and initiatives that all failed to significantly transform Africa’s development predicament. The reigning social science concept today is the idea of a developmental state. This is the idea of a state that is able to take the burden of macroeconomic and developmental initiatives driven by its critical regulation of the crucial factors of development. Factor into this complex underdevelopment of Africa’s development potentials the lack of a functional continental Internet policy that can backstop Africa’s, and especially national, development efforts. As a former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Communication Technology, I came face to face with the implications of this critical policy absence, together with so many others. There are therefore specificities to the Internet issues that go beyond the appreciation of its significance for international, transnational and global interdependence and interaction. The fundamental issue derives from what to make of the Internet and how to deploy its relevance for national and continental development purposes. For Africa, the challenges of converting the Internet into a development dynamics are legion. Consider the following. First, there is the challenge of inclusiveness and universal service that give the Internet the capability of enfolding the whole of humanity. But the usual underdevelopment issue rears its head with the Internet in Africa. Africa has a notoriously low internet penetration rate of 16%. The continent therefore remains in a dangerous development status as large swathes of the continent remains unconnected/under-connected to the internet. 16% Internet penetration level is definitely insufficient to instigate development planning!

Internet inclusiveness ties in automatically with the problem of affordability. Technology opens up efficiencies and opportunities that development policies can piggyback on to resolve the thorny challenges of, say, poverty reduction and disease control while improving quality of life and service delivery. However, since technology itself does not come cheap, those very portions of the populace who are in dire need of the Internet to access development initiatives are the very ones that will be left out of it. The 16% Internet penetration level simply means that only 15 out of every 100 Africans can access the Internet. This is even more critical when entrepreneurial creativity and SMEs are constantly being stifled by their inability to afford the cost of connection. A larger challenge comes from the lack of local content that comes from the government’s capacity to take ownership of the Internet in its own domains. This challenge is a step higher than that of inclusiveness. If the problem of inclusiveness is overcome, then there comes that of owning the contents of the Internet and deploying them for development purposes. The evolving digital economy is a prime option for Africa to creatively utilize. On the contrary, however, most of the local content available on African networks are borrowed with very little customization for the African environment. This dismal situation sends a dangerous signal of an impending digital colonization of the African Internet presence.

A corollary challenge arises from the specter of cybercrimes and security issues. Ownership of Internet content automatically raises the gravity of a state’s capacity to protect those contents. The digital economy dynamics is the most prone to cybercrime which has itself become as sophisticated as the evolving technologies that created the worldwide web. If the Pentagon and other critically guided organizations can be successfully hacked, what do we say about the Internet status of critical African institutions and economies that are still at the hesitant stage of incorporation?

All these challenges outlined above only presage a really deeper one. And this is the absence of a sufficiently dynamic Internet policy grounded on a compelling theoretical research that would not only match the evolving research framework that gave birth to the Internet itself, but also incorporate an African technological component into the framework of the Internet. This is really the critical issue at stake. While African countries have been rather long on rhetoric, especially about the significance of a STEM education as well as science, technology and innovation (STI) for national development, they have been too short on practical implementation of significantly concrete policies that will translate their political rhetoric to cogent policy frameworks. It is still not clear whether, for instance, African countries have made any serious progress towards meeting the target of dedicating 1% of their total GDP to research and development (R&D). There are even no available data to track development progress! Thus, for Africa to become truly developmental, it is not sufficient for the continent to just pursue getting an enlarged presence on the Internet. Rather, it must be willing to craft an Internet policy dynamics that will facilitate significant contributions in terms of an efficient Internet R&D.

The Google-ISGPP Internet Policy Conference therefore becomes very timely and imperative because it brings to the Roundtable a multidisciplinary team of academics, practitioners and scholars to brainstorm on these outlined challenges as well as issues of governance and development, knowledge and capacity building, entrepreneurship and innovation, intellectual property and security, etc. The ultimate objective of the Roundtable is to jumpstart a critical development trajectory that will give birth to a Pan-African Think Tank on Internet Policy which will serve as a dynamic platform for inspiring new frontiers in academic research that will then critically advance digital industrialization by Africans for Africans. Recently, African leaders and scholars have come under the grips of the “Africa Rising” euphoria backed by some impressive economic growth data of about 7%. A further opportunity to boost a truly rising African development profile comes from the capacity of African states to boost the potential for efficient digital economies at the critical juncture of digital innovation and technologies, digital accessibility, governance foresight, and wealth generation. However, what kind of philosophy of innovation in Africa can bring about thriving digital economies? To answer this question means beginning with a glaring absence of such a developmental philosophy as a crucial antecedent to a formidable developmental state in Africa. The top ten states in Africa with very high Internet penetration are Nigeria (48.4 users), Egypt (29.8m), Morocco (16.5m), Kenya (12m), South Africa (8.5m), Sudan (6.5m), Tanzania (5.6m), Algeria (5.2m), Uganda (4.4m), and Tunisia (4.2m). In spite of this high penetration, these countries have still not become outstanding examples of digital economies or of a developmental state.

At the minimum, therefore, the Google-ISGPP Roundtable will attempt to lay the foundation of an academic reflection on Internet policy and development initiatives that will (a) seek to connect emerging disruptive technologies to the efficiency of digital infrastructure on the continent; (b) generate the gem of research thinking on the idea of innovative ecosystem and economic diversification in the unfolding Internet and knowledge economy; and (c) map the relationship between the dynamics of the Internet and other digital trends to the awakening of the entrepreneurial creativity in Africa. All these derive from the will to go forward in the drive to establish an Internet Policy that will link both research and development efforts across the continent. Thus, this African academic collaboration will become a significant groundwork to establish the fundamental theoretical foundation that could identify the core issues required to nurture an African contribution to the dynamics of Internet policy across the globe.

The Roundtable, at the end of its proceedings, will achieve two significant things. First, it will become the nucleus of an African academic community of practice on the Internet and Internet policy. This community will then be broadened and strengthened over time into a large theoretical space that will mainly define the African best practices in internet innovation and digital governance economy. This community of practice, through working papers, research themes, conferences and seminars, publication and social media marketing, etc., would be expected to continually define the relationship between digital infrastructure and governance in Africa. Second, as an immediate benefit, the Roundtable will produce an action plan—The Academic Action Plan on Internet Policy in Africa (AAPIPA)—together with a template for its dissemination and implementation across the continent.

The Google-ISGPP Roundtable has only three days to unravel, but its impact is expected to become the seed for transforming reflection and policy research on the utility of the Internet and digital infrastructures in Africa. Finally, there is a real attempt, grounded in active research, that could lead in the final analysis to a truly rising profile for Africa in terms of a genuine economic matrix that can empower Africans, as the continent marches into the twenty first century defined by robust digital interactions founded on knowledge.

Dr. Tunji Olaopa is the Executive Vice-Chairman of Ibadan School of Government & Public Policy (tolaopa@isgpp.com.ng; tolaopa2003@gmail.com)