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Africa

The long haul: Digitalization in Africa

Much hope was invested in Africa's digital revolution. So far, it hasn't spread much further than the bigger cities. Women often fail to benefit but young women entrepreneurs are determined to reverse this trend.

Kenyan tech specialist Judith Owigar reels off the major cities in home country - Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu. That's also a complete list of all the places in Kenya with high speed internet. "Even the strength of the network signal for mobile phones is a problem for many people in rural areas," she said. Owigar is the founder of AkiraChix, a nonprofit organization that seeks to strengthen the role of Kenyan women in technology.

At Deutsche Welle's just concluded Global Media Forum (GMF) in Bonn, Owigar was a member of a panel discussing the winners and losers in Africa's drive for digitalization. "How can we speak of a digital revolution when most people don't even have access to the internet, computers or a mobile phone?" she asked.

Africa pnael GMF Judith Owigar© DW/K. Danetzki

Judith Owigar says it would be premature to speak of a digital revolution in Africa

Yet most experts and activists were brimming with optimism. Even though this is not the first time the forum has debated digitalization in Africa, there appeared to be a consensus that the internet and other digital technologies would shortly usher in an era of radical change in all spheres of life, paving the way for a better future in which there was less injustice and inequality. Women, the poor and rural residents, would be given access to education, jobs and services, which they had previously been denied.

Losing out in the digital revolution

The reality is rather different. Last year, the GSMA, which represents the interest of mobile phone operators worldwide, revealed that far fewer women than men possess a mobile phone in Africa. Only South Asia has a bigger mobile phone gender gap than Africa. Economically, Africa is also lagging behind. According to the World Bank, the contribution made by the internet to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of African countries is far smaller than had been projected in spite of high rates of economic growth.

GMF Binta oudy De

Binta Coudy De says it is difficult to get a mobile signal along Senegal's main arteries

Africa's digital infrastructure - the availability of internet, television and mobile phone access - remains underdeveloped. The Senegalese government is still drawing up its digital strategy. "Just imagine," Binta Coudy De told the GMF in Bonn "that means that we haven't even begun to think about concrete measures."

No signal

Coudy De is the founder of the Jjiguene Tech Hub, Senegal's first technology center for women. Her experience of digital communication in Africa is almost identical to that of Judith Owigar from Kenya. The mobile phone network in and around the Senegalese capital Dakar is now fairly extensive, but elsewhere - even along the main highways - mobile phone users will search in vain for a signal. Even in those areas where access to digital technology is available, the difficulties persist. Either people have difficulty getting to grips with the technology, or authoritarian governments stop them from using social media, or women are denied entry to IT jobs because of traditional patriachal norms.

Nonetheless young African entrepreneurs refuse to be discouraged. "It is up to us to make sure that change happens," said Costa Mwansa, the general manager of Zambia's Muvi TV and, incidentally, the only male member of the panel. It would be too simplistic to blame the politicians for the current malaise. "Our continent is destined for great things, but to achieve goals we don't need new politicians but a new mindset," Mwansa said.

Panel Afrika GMF Catherine Lückhoff

Catherine Lückhoff hopes today's young users will become tomorrow's engineers

Enthusiasm for digital technology

Catherine Lückhoff from South Africa agrees with him. She founded the music platform Niche Streem and thinks it's important to get young people using the new technology even if it is only to chat with their friends. "Perhaps it will lead to them becoming programmers, engineers or glass fiber optics specialists one day," she said.

Nobody attending the panel discussion appeared to doubt that the opportunities digitalization offered Africa were as promising as ever. But time and hard work would be needed to bring about the required changes to society, said Judith Owigar, whose organization teaches girls computer programming. "Sometimes I think this is a task that will take more than a lifetime," she said, consoling herself with a proverb: "Wise men plant trees in whose shade they may never sit."