Connecting Africa — from Rwanda

From the Connect Africa summit in Kigali

The much-talked-about Connect Africa summit (see The Economist, BBC and The Times) has started in Kigali, Rwanda and the two-day event has the opportunity of bringing to the fore, the need for urgent action in meeting Africa’s connectivity needs. The present story is clearly sad — less thank 4% of Africans currently use the internet, and broadband penetration is below 1%! — but with some political will from the governments, innovative business models from the private sector, sustainable and bottom-up action from the civil society, targeted and collaborative research by the academia, news emphasis on the urgency of the task by the media and cooperation (the sincere form, not the usual pity party) from the international community, Africa will be well on its way out of this embarrassing situation.

With quite a number of Heads of Governments (Burkina Faso, Burundi, Djibouti, Malawi, Mali, Rwanda, Senegal) and other high profile business, government and civil society leaders in attendance, the summit is co-hosted by the International Telecommunications Union and the Government of Rwanda. As I write, the president of Senegal is making one of those speeches that I honestly hope the political leaders (including himself) are listening to — and not just waiting in line to give their own speech. He spoken clearly about the need to stop holding summits after summits, considering the huge cost involved and the positive use such can be put to. He asked questions about the many promises made by international institutions in the past, and the usual answer was, “nothing has been done.” He joked that, “… the AU secretariat in Addis Ababa should compile a list of summits that have been held, and when next someone suggest another one, we’ll look at the list and say, ‘that has been done, move on’…”

I have been discussing this same worry with friends, and I should know. As someone who spends quite some time in many of these policy events, I am concerned about the risk of waiting for the next meeting without any considerable action. The stance of Paradigm Initiative Nigeria to take action and show what can be done is not unconnected to this secret (yet open) fear of mine. I spent much of these travel hours between 2001 and February 2007 listening to the same presentations (well, some only need to change the date, title and venue) and decided I was tired of the vicious circle. My February 13 2007 resignation and decision to dedicate time to PIN’s projects (including the much-talked-about Ajegunle.org) came off this thought process.

Back to the summit… it ends tomorrow and there are reports that about $3 billion has already been pledged towards connecting Africa. Speakers will vary in length and intensity of speech, political leaders will boast about what they will do, business leaders will keep their eyes open for emerging markets, delegates will enjoy the ambience of Serena hotel… but what will come out of this process? I am optimistic that the sessions that have held before the main summit, the innocent discussions at coffee break, and the obvious business opportunity — that the challenge of connecting Africa brings with it — will weave a win-win situation that will see Africa making progress. Will the ITU be able to ensure that this forms a major bus stop in Africa’s connectivity quest? Will each of us (with varying degree of influence) be able to drive change from our individual cockpits — and also ensure the coming together of all these to create sustainable change?

NB: The summit is now over, and you can read the final summary report here.

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