Graham, M. & Foster, C.G. 2016. Geographies of Information Inequality in Sub-Saharan Africa. The African Technopolitan, 4, pp. 78–85.
Sub-Saharan Africa has traditionally been characterised by stark barriers to telecommunication and flows of information. Rates for long distance phone calls throughout Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) used to be some of the highest in the world, and Internet costs and speeds similarly were out of the reach of all but the most privileged citizens. However, in the last few years, there have been radical changes to SSA’s international connectivity. Fibre-optic cables have been laid throughout the continent and there are now over one hundred and fifty million Internet users and over seven hundred million mobile users in the region.
This rapid transformation in the region’s connectivity has encouraged politicians, journalists, academics, and citizens to speak of an ICT-fuelled revolution happening on the continent. Individuals and firms would increasingly be linked into global networks – interacting, selling and using knowledge through this connectivity (Graham & Mann 2013).
This has also been reflected in new ambitions and policy in SSA. For example, in Rwanda (a strong advocate of upgrading connectivity to drive development) the stated policy goal has been to:
“transform her subsistence agriculture dominated economy into a service-sector driven high value-added information and knowledge economy that can compete on the global market” (GoR 2001 p.7)
Changing connectivity thus is articulated as a core driver of wider economic change in SSA. It is seen as providing a path for the region to move away from reliance on agriculture and extractive industries and towards a focus on the quaternary and quinary sectors (in other words, the knowledge-based parts of the economy).
However, while much research has been conducted into the impacts of ICTs on older economic processes and practices, there remains surprisingly little research into the emergence of the new informationalised economy in Africa. As such, it is precisely now that we urgently need research to understand what impacts are observable, who benefits, who doesn’t, and how these changes match up to our expectations for change. We need to ask if we are seeing a new era of development on the continent fuelled by ICTs, or whether Sub- Saharan Africa’s engagement with the global knowledge economy continues to be on terms that reinforce dependence, inequality, underdevelopment, and economic extraversion.
We begin to address this issue by synthesising the outputs of two multi-year research projects that we have carried out which provide in-depth analysis of SSA connectivity use. The first one addresses the effects of changing connectivities on global geographies of voice, representation, and participation, particularly through exploring the dynamics online platforms, tools and databases. The second project is grounded in in-depth qualitative research, examining the effects of changing connectivity on firms in core sectors of the economy (tea, tourism, and Business Process Outsourcing) in Kenya and Rwanda
Graham, M., Foster, C.G., 2014 Geographies of Information Inequality in Sub-Saharan Africa. Short paper presented at the Round Table on Inclusion in the Network Society