Africa must embrace Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure deployment as part of a comprehensive economic growth strategy to address developmental issues, President John Evans Atta Mills said on Tuesday.
He said connecting rural communities on the continent to tackle challenges in education, health and governance required a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented information society.
President Mills made the call in a speech read on his behalf by Communications Minister, Mr Haruna Iddrisu, at the opening session of the Fifth African Regional Conference on Rural Communications in Accra.
The conference, organised by Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO), is under the theme: “Connecting Rural Africa on a Cost-Effective, Sustainable and Profitable Basis through Government-Led Public Private Peoples Partnerships.”
President Mills said government was committed towards developing ubiquitous broadband infrastructure for e-government services to cover all district assemblies to provide opportunities for affordable ICT services to the citizenry.
He gave the assurance that government would provide funding to enable the Ministry of Communications to undertake added universal access projects in the communities and across the country.
President Mills expressed the hope that the conference would provide the framework for cooperation of public, private and the grassroots to identify clear roles of all stakeholders and focus on profitable ICT services rather than the display of technology or processes.
He emphasised on the need to make ICT services affordable for the rural communities and support manpower development and employment.
Mr James Victor Gbeho, President of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commission, observed that Africa lagged behind other countries in terms of technological advancement and socio-economic development.
He stressed that ICT offered the realistic chance for Africa to bridge the knowledge and technological gap with the rest of the world, citing emerging economies of South East Asia and Latin America, particularly India, China and Brazil, as shining examples.
Mr Gbeho noted that the unreliable and costly energy situation the continent was bedevilled with constituted another drawback to connectivity.
“Erratic electricity supply and the dearth of cheaper alternative energy sources hamper the optimum use of mobile telephony, ICT and connectivity. This challenge is most acute in the rural areas,” he said.
He expressed dissatisfaction over the low content with regard to programming and weak indigenous human resource base adding that the fledgling ICT industry found it cheaper to import low quality programmes and products than to invest in local programming.
“The high level of illiteracy and innumeracy in the region is even more accentuated in the rural areas, thus depriving the industry of readily available local skills,” he added.
Mr Gbeho said Africa needed to fast-track the roll out of energy and telecommunications infrastructure, as a matter of urgency, to harmonise legislation, launch a sustained awareness drive and develop a vibrant local human resource base by building local skills.
Dr Hamadoun Toure, Secretary General of International Telecommunications Organisation, underscored the importance of focusing on using and building on local contents in terms of programming and human resource development in the telecommunication industry to protect the rich cultural heritage the continent was endowed with.
Dr Ekwow Spio-Gabrah, Chief Executive Officer of CTO, said his outfit was an inter-governmental organisation made up of information and technology companies, ICT equipments, manufacturers, vendors and stakeholders that provided consultancy and advisory services for both national and international bodies.
He said in recent times, CTO focused on forging rural ICT programmes to connect rural communities in Africa on a cost-effective sustainable and profitable basis through public, private, peoples and partnerships (PPPP).
Dr Spio-Gabrah expressed worry that in spite of major ICT advances, more than 70 per cent of Commonwealth developing citizens, mostly in rural areas, were unconnected.
He noted that though Africa had improved its political and economic activities to that of a more democratic climate, much needed to be done to harness the potential of ICT for development.
Dr Spio-Gabrah said 60 per cent of African countries were more democratic compared with less than 20 per cent in 1980s.
He added that exports from Africa had increased from 40 billion dollars in 1990 to over 150 billion dollars in 2009 adding ICT growth had become a crucial part of strategic plan which drives an economy.
Mr Brett Goschen, Chief Executive Officer of MTN, a private international telecommunication provider, called for ICT infrastructure sharing and partnerships to be formed as part of prudent measures of managing the industry.
Participants at the conference included stakeholders in the telecommunication industry, service providers, vendors and experts in the ICT industry.