Africa and South America are often classified together as developing continents, but in the area of technological advancements and innovative developments using home-grown technology, Latin American countries seem to have made a lot more progress than their African counterparts. In many areas especially healthcare, alternative energy and in the ICT sector, countries like Chile have constantly shone the light for others to follow.
Africa has a lot to learn from countries like Chile in the areas of ICT. How did Chile achieve the great heights it has achieved in the area of Information and Communication Technology?
It all boils down to the proactive nature adopted by the Chilean government towards achieving a prime position in the ICT industry. Nigeria is widely known to be the biggest ICT market in Africa, with a mobile phone density of about 100million GSM lines in use. However, the telecom industry was only deregulated in 2001 with the provision of GSM licenses to three initial entrants. Prior to this, there were only 400,000 landlines in a country of close to 150million users, and the government-owned telecoms company has been out of operation for close to ten years. Chile started its ICT deregulation in the early 90s, showing the immense head-start the Chilean government has over the African telecom giants.
The Chilean government realised that the best way to achieve its ICT goals was to initiate programs to get the ICT services right down to the rural poor. One of the programs initiated to achieve this was the Telecommunications Development Fund, a fund to assist telecom service providers subsidise the cost of extending their reach into rural Chile.
Another initiative of the Chilean government was the Enlaces Project. Established in 1992, this initiative was setup to link 350 schools via a Wireless Access Network (WAN) in order to enable them access computer applications directly. Even though connectivity costs limited the usage of the facility by these schools, this initiative could still be seen as a great idea in concept to enhance ICT knowledge among rural students.
A more recent initiative is the Chile Digital Agenda, which was a lofty plan by the Chilean government to digitalize the entire country. This plan, which boasts of 6 action areas through which 34 initiatives are to be accomplished, hopes to improve access, deploy a full e-government facility, enhance ICT education and training and create ICT industries and businesses, all amid a comprehensive legal and regulatory framework to put the industry on the right path. It is indeed no wonder that Chile is today a foremost ICT nation.
What can Africa learn from the Chile experience? The answer is a whole lot. For example, African countries need to improve internet access to schools. Nigeria has only recently introduced ICT education into its secondary schools’ curriculum, and even though there is a USPF-backed initiative to provide internet access to schools, the whole program seems to have been hijacked as a money-making venture for contractors close to government officials. There needs to be an honest and more people-oriented approach to these programs. Hardly do African governments have interactive sessions with the proposed beneficiaries of these programs, especially from the segment of the rural poor. Policies designed to improve ICT education and access need to be less elitist in approach and implementation, and designed in such a way as to carry recipients along.
There is a great need to setup funds such as the Telecommunications Development Fund to subsidize the cost of internet service provision for telecoms service providers. Internet access rates in Africa are still very high compared with the rest of the world. One reason provided repeatedly by telecoms providers is the high cost of doing business. In many African countries, power supply is still a big issue. There needs to be a concerted effort by African governments to setup subsidy funds as a stop-gap measure to help improve access at reduced costs, while the infrastructural deficiencies, which usually take years to solve, are tackled.
There is a lot that Africa can learn from the Chilean technological experience.