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NEPAD e-Africa Commission – Lessons Learnt

21 January, 2013
 
ICT Africa Team
January 21, 2013

The NEPAD e-Africa commission was the organ charged with spearheading ICT development in Africa on behalf of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). The e-Africa Commission has initiated a number of ambitious programs that they have not been able to carry through. We believe that the challenges faced by the e-Africa Commission are opportunities from which all continental and regional bodies should learn from and approach the development of ICT in Africa differently. After all, it is not errors that we should guard against but persistence in error.

In 2003, the e-Africa commission set-out to develop an e-schools satellite network that would connect 600 000 African schools to the Internet and provide elementary and high school students with the much needed electronic skills to prepare the school children for a world that is increasingly becoming electronic. Not much has been accomplished on this project. The only progress we are aware of has been the completion of an architectural study that would form the basis of the satellite network. At the pace at which the project is going, it is not clear that it will ever see the light of day.

In the same year, the NEPAD e-Africa Commission announced a proposal to deploy a submarine cable along the East Coast of Africa. The East Africa Submarine System (EASSy) was intended to provide better connectivity to the region that had until then relied mostly on foreign-owned satellite systems for all forms of communications to other parts of Africa and the rest of the world. EASSy would also complement the only submarine cable serving Africa, SAT-3, which connected the countries of West Africa to Europe and the Far East. The announcement of EASSy was followed by the Kigali Protocol of 2006, a policy and regulatory framework to accelerate development of ICT infrastructure in Africa. The Kigali Protocol propounded an ICT policy and regulatory framework within which a NEPAD ICT network could be developed, owned, operated and maintained. Initially developed for countries in Eastern and Southern Africa, the protocol would be extended to all African countries after appropriate amendments were made.

The successful completion of the system, a consortium of the e-Africa commission, African operators and International investors, was supposed to serve as a benchmark of how African and global telecommunications companies could work with regional institutions to develop telecommunication infrastructure in Africa. It would enable telecommunication operators to access growing markets in voice, mobile and Internet communications and reduce their dependence on satellite.

Apparently, the involvement of the e-Africa Commission in EASSy added a bureaucratic element to the project that slowed down the progress of the project instead of accelerating it. Constant bickering between the e-Africa commission and incumbent telecommunication carriers who were members of the consortium threatened to derail the project. The privately owned SEACOM project which was conceptualized and planned long after EASSy was announced was completed and commissioned in 2009, before the completion of EASSy. It was not until the e-Africa Commission was requested to leave the project that progress was finally made and the 10 000km EASSy submarine cable was finally completed in 2010.

By 2007, when the e-Africa Commission had given up participation in the EASSy project, yet more ambitious projects were announced. These included the construction of a high capacity submarine cable system in the East and West coasts of Africa with the potential to connect each and every coastal and island African country, and connecting the continent to the Americas, Europe, Middle East, and India. The submarine element was named UHURUNET, the terrestrial segment, UMOJANET, and the special purpose vehicle to manage the deployment was named BAHARICOM.

As far as we are aware, not much progress has been made on these ambitious projects. The e-Africa Commission claims that BAHARICOM signed a memorandum of understanding with France Telecom and 17 other signatories on the construction and management of the cable. The submarine cable in question, ACE (African Coast to Europe), is a cable system along the west coast of Africa between France and South Africa managed by a consortium of 16 operators and administrations headed by France Telecom - Orange. It is not very clear how the e-Africa Commission is involved.

The e-Africa Commission is not the only continental or regional body that has attempted the deployment of ambitious ICT projects without success. The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) has also attempted to deploy a flamboyant terrestrial fibre optic network through a special purpose vehicle known as COMTEC. The COMTEC project was intended to connect all the 19 countries of COMESA from South Africa to Egypt with high capacity fibre optic cable but it did not get off the ground.

We know that the people at the e-Africa Commission and COMESA are very patriotic and had the best interest of Africa when they propounded these ICT development plans. In fact we gave them all our support, cheered them on and in some cases worked closely with them to make sure these initiatives would succeed. We believed in their plans and hoped that the projects would help bridge the wide digital divide between Africa and the rest of the world.

Knowing what we know now, we believe that the idea of continental or regional organizations deploying and operating cross border networks may never work. The best approach is for continental and regional bodies such as the African Union Information Society Unit, the African Telecommunication Union, the Southern Africa Telecommunication Association (SATA), COMESA and others to support and empower telecommunication operators and infrastructure companies to handle the deployment and operation of telecommunication infrastructure. Support can come in the form of mobilization of the much needed project financing, developing regulation that can help accelerate cross border connectivity and identifying missing network links as the African Union has set out to do.


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