Africa is on the brink of a telecommunications renaissance. This was the verdict of some 6,000 delegates who attended the Africa Telecom '98 conference in Johannesburg recently.
Africa's growing need for telecommunications links came under the spotlight recently as the continent played host to one of the largest telecommunications events ever to be staged there. Some 6,000 people from 40 countries converged in Johannesburg for the Africa Telecom '98 conference organised by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), to discuss the challenges facing the world's least developed continent.
"Africa is truly on the brink of a renaissance. Continuing economic progress depends on continued progress in communications and telecommunication development," Dr. Pekka Tarjanne, secretary-general of the ITU said. "With continuing financial instability and uncertainty in Asia, Africa could well turn out to be the region of the world that grows fastest this year."
Until recently, Africa's telecommunication development has lagged far behind that of the rest of the world. There are an estimated 12m phones in all of sub-Saharan Africa less than in the city of Tokyo - five million of which are in South Africa. According to ITU's African Telecommunication Indicators report published recently, in several countries including Malawi, Swaziland, Sierra Leone and Tanzania, would-be telephone users have to wait more than 10 years to be connected. 'Even with the most optimistic assumptions, fewer than one in 50 Africans will have direct telephone access by the end of the decade,' the report concludes.
Africa's demand for basic telephone services is far outstripping existing physical capacity. "The majority of the African continent is bursting with the need to communicate, yet the infrastructure is not there," said Bradley P. Holmes, executive vice-president of the CTR group. The real challenge facing governments is to generate enough resources to meet the demand. However, "Africa remains a huge untapped market for telecommunications and information technologies," South African President Nelson Mandela told the meeting. "Like other emerging markets, it presents huge opportunities for investors. The investment needs of this rapidly expanding sector cannot be met by the public sector alone."
For change to occur, the private sector has to be encouraged to invest in the continent. Yet, of the $95bn raised world-wide for telecoms privatisation in the last four years...