Out of Africa: death of the digital divide

Is the "digital divide," one of the most popular technology buzz terms of the decade, dead?

The question was posed to me last night by Eric Osiakwan, an old friend and Internet promoter from Accra, Ghana. Osiakwan is visiting the U.S. to attend a gathering of global geeks convened by Harvardâ''s Berkman Center next week. As soon as we sat down for beers and pizza in Berkeley's Jupiter cafe, he asked me whether I had seen the confession by Jeffrey Sachs, the economist, in the London Guardian.

I had not, so Eric found the piece on my Ipod. Sure enough, Sachs was admitting that for too long he had underplayed the importance of information technology -- computing, communications and the Internet -- in reducing poverty in Africa.

"The digital divide is beginning to close," Sachs opined.

"Extreme poverty is almost synonymous with extreme isolation, especially rural isolation. But mobile phones and wireless internet end isolation, and will therefore prove to be the most transformative technology of economic development of our time," Sachs added.

"The digital divide is ending not through a burst of civic responsibility, but mainly through market forces," he continued. "Mobile phone technology is so powerful, and costs so little per unit of data transmission, that it has proved possible to sell mobile phone access to the poor."

At this point Osiakwan beamed proudly, but then made an important critical point: On a global scale the digital divide is closing but within African countries the divide remains -- and may even be worsening as in many places the gulf between rich and poor is widening.

Another major issue, Osiakwan told me, is the shifting nature of computing and communications. Five years ago, the experts thought the computer would be the engine of networking, even in very poor parts of Africa. Great and expensive initiatives, often backed by governments and charities, arose with the aim of bringing computers to the African masses.

Computers of course remain important in Africa. But two factors changed the equation. First, used computers began to proliferate in African cities. These machines often cost as little as $150, and they are fully functional desktop machines, effective though usually using a generation-old system. Even laptop computers can be found for $250; again, they are used but in good condition.

These aging computers can no longer be sold in Europe and the U.S., but they are sought after in Africa, and for good reason. They cost 5 to 10 times less than a new machine.

The second factor disloging the computer from center stage is the rapid rise of the mobile phone. Phones are becoming more powerful, so that the prospect is approaching of convergence between Internet and mobility.

As we dive into our pizzas, Osiakwan admits to me that he never anticipated the sudden ascent of mobile phones -- and the relative lack of excitement about computers today in Africa.

"Mobile phones are where the action is," he says, "but the Internet remains the foundation for the new information society arising in Africa. Without the Internt, the phone would only be for talking."

And we all know, talk is cheap.

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