Rory Cellan-Jones

Africa gets connected

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 11 Sep 09, 08:46 GMT

I'm off on a trip this weekend as one of a BBC team hoping to give you some new insights into how technology is shaping a fascinating part of the world.

It's a place where you can get a vision of the mobile future, where millions of people use their phones to run their finances and as their main point of access to the web.

But it's also an area where millions of people have a huge and unsatisfied thirst for faster connections to the rest of the world - and a belief that this could change their lives for the better.

I'm talking, of course, about Africa. Across the continent, there's the promise of far more reliable and speedy internet connections arriving via fibre-optic cables.

Kenyan man on mobile phone

A clutch of commercial and government projects have been racing to give Africa the bandwidth it needs.

Now there's a winner in that contest - the Seacom cable laid under the sea from Mumbai to the East African coast.

It has come ashore in South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya - and internet service providers are just beginning to hook up customers who should now benefit from much speedier connections.

The coastal countries will benefit first, but there's huge excitement too in places like Uganda and Rwanda, where governments are promising that their citizens too will soon be connected to the cable.

Just how important this is was summed up for me by a BBC colleague, Joseph Warungu, who grew up in Kenya. He described just how difficult it was even to make an international phone call back then:

"If you wanted to call London, you had to book it in advance with the international operator and you'd be given a slot. You then had to hang around your house for the operator to call you when they found a free circuit...not necessarily at the agreed time. It could take hours for the call to come through and when it did you just hoped and prayed that your party on the other end was available otherwise it was a long wasted day."

Now Kenyans - and many other Africans - have seen their lives transformed by the arrival of mobile phones, with commercial operators succeeding in delivering a decent service where state telecoms companies had a long record of failure.

But to get onto the internet they've usually had to rely on those same mobile connections, which have been both expensive and slow.

And even businesses with a fixed line web connection struggle - witness this week's very amusing story about the South African firm which found that a racing pigeon was a quicker way of moving data than an ADSL line.

But Joseph Warungu reckons the cables could complete a digital revolution, which could be as significant for many African countries as the arrival of independence in the 1960s.

So our project - which we're calling Connected Africa - involves us heading first to Mombasa, where the Seacom landing-station in Kenya is located.

We're planning to spend a couple of days recording the impact of the new connection in the weeks after it was switched on.

Then next Wednesday, we are hoping to use the connection to broadcast live pictures and sound - a plan which is already bringing me out in a cold sweat as we all know just how unwise it can be to depend on brand new technology.

From Kenya, we head on Thursday to Rwanda, where we will spend a couple of days filming a report on how that country is hoping to use the cable to fulfil its ambitions to be Africa's digital hub. I'm planning to post daily updates about our experiences on this blog from Monday. From Wednesday, there will also be a wealth of material in a special Connected Africa section of the site, and you can catch us on radio and TV from Mombasa.

Like the cables, this project has been a long time in the planning - so I'm hoping we can deliver. Watch this space.


  • Comment number 1.

    I would implore you, when covering Africa, to always look at everything in the context of the problems that Africa has with war, starvation and poverty.

    Getting Africa connected has a cultural importance for making sure that it can rebuild itself as a vital part of the world, but it also has a cost. The companies who are out there working on IT infrastructure are not charities, they are out to make a profit. That is not a bad thing in itself, but this is a country where for many decisions boil down to "buy this phone, or feed that family."

    Here is some cold, hard reading for you that you should lay along side your statistics of how many Africans are on the internet:

    Africa has a relatively small population considering the size of the continent - around 500 million people. (Africa is almost ten times the size of India which has a population of 1.2 billion)

    But the African population in some areas is growing rapidly - this makes it very attractive to the IT investor. But having a laptop is pointless if the village is starving - so, all investment in African countries has to be looked at as a balanced idea in a way that simply does not apply to other continents.

    Also, corruption is so rife in parts of Africa, that you cannot cover such a story without looking at the political consequences and how the large companies operate. This is a place where Europeans peddling homeopathy as a cure for Aids are allowed to operate - that is your benchmark for how much of the African continent works.

    You will see a lot of shiny new equipment and lots of smiling faces at how wonderful someone's new connection is (though, don't forget Winston the Pigeon).

    However, do remember that more than anywhere else, Africa is becoming more and more a country of Have's and Have Nots - you cannot ignore that if your coverage is going to be really about Africa.

  • Comment number 2.

    This actually sounds like quite a interesting post, I'm actually quite jealous Rory I hope its a enlightening experiance.

  • Comment number 3.

    Have a good time Rory...Mombasa is a beautiful but very relaxed town. Food is fantastic - try mandazi and drink lots of Tuskers. On a serious note, I am very keen to read about your impression of technology in East Africa with the development of the SEACOM cable - having family in Kenya, I have been told that the cable is a great welcome however at a huge cost to pay for it so it is not being utilised enough yet...

  • Comment number 4.

    Well, currently being in northern Tanzania, with broadband that crawls at 48k and is off about half the time due to power cuts, there seems to be a more pressing issue with power in the continent just now. Having a sparkly fibre-optic cable is great but if you have no electricity half-time that seems to be a far more significant challenge for East and Southern Africa.


  • Comment number 5.

    Having spent quite some time in different parts of Africa - the poorest parts on fact - I can say with total clarity that the biggest difference and advancement that Africans are benefitting from at present (unlike us Europeans) is a simple and clear mobile phone network without roaming charges.

    This means that if one subscribes to, say, the Zain phone network, then trade and communication has been massively advantaged by the fact that they can call and roam around the various countries within the network without paying a penny more than if they were home and calling their mother in law down the road.

    It is a small, simple - but HIGHLY effective use of technology that is making the impact on the ground, more so than the Euro-centric obsession with ADSL speeds and the like

    Sure they would be nice and will certainly help when they arrive, but given the immensity of development that still needs to take place across the continent, I would humbly ask you to look a little further down the foodchain to see what technology can and is doing to help people earn a crust or two.

  • Comment number 6.

    I grew up in India and recall identical experiences to those described by Joseph Warungu when trying to make international calls. Yet look at India's telecoms infrastructure today. Let's hope this project is the beginning of the same for Africa.

  • Comment number 7.

    "It's a place where you can get a vision of the mobile future, where millions of people use their phones to run their finances and as their main point of access to the web.

    But it's also an area where millions of people have a huge and unsatisfied thirst for faster connections to the rest of the world - and a belief that this could change their lives for the better."

    For a moment I thought you were talking about Wales.

  • Comment number 8.

    Good luck Rory. Don't forget to take your shots. And try not to get taken hostage by some tinpot dictator.

    As good a "stroy" as this might be I do think that before the Africans jump on the broadband bandwagon they should be looking at sorting out the mess that is Africa.

    We, the western world, have been pouring money into Africa, since Live Aid, some 20+ years ago even from before then and there are still famines/wars and general instability and extreme poverty all across Africa.

    And yet for some reason Africans appear to want broadband...

  • Comment number 9.

    ravenmorpheus wrote:

    And yet for some reason Africans appear to want broadband...


    They want broadband for the same reason everyone else does - some clever marketing initiative has told them they want it.

  • Comment number 10.


    I am glad, that you are going to Africa and doing reportage about, The Information Technology across the continent...

    =Dennis Junior=

  • Comment number 11.

    'I'm off on a trip this weekend as one of a BBC team hoping..'

    Are Justin Rowlatt, Richard Black, David Shuckman, Roger Harrabin, etc going too?

    They could do some great pieces on IT solutions for the climate change afflictions destined for this great continent.

    If they have time before flying off en masse to Copenhagen with Dave and Ed to discuss, amongst other things um, (the wrong sort of) flying off.

    Here' hoping.

    But then, I guess, like this blog thread, that's another department.

  • Comment number 12.

    To see what's coming up in the near future in terms of African sub-marine cables take a look at Steve Song's excellect blog Many Possibilities . You'll see that East Africa will soon be falling behind again as new cables become live along the West Coast.

    SEACOM has made a huge difference to pricing of East Africa internet but at a cost ranging from $400 to $600 per Mbps for organisations and businesses depending on the capacity purchased, prices are still much higher than bandwidth in Europe and the USA.

  • Comment number 13.

    To really see how the new submarine fibre connections can help Africa, it would be good to take a look at these areas:

    1. Plans to improve the telecoms (& electricity) infrastructure within the country, so the users can benefit from the new links. In West Africa, the new cable links were under-utilised for a long time because of the high costs of old-fashioned data links provided by state monopolies. (These monopolies were seen as "cash-cows" by many governments, who were reluctant to inject large sums for investment.)

    2. Countries without coasts are already at a major disadvantage compared with those with access to the ocean. Almost all have, or used to have, railway access along which fibre cables could be buried. Could the rich subsidise the poor in this area? The inland economies are not generally rich enough to make the installation of fibre cables economic. Could a very special case be made for the Central African Republic, which doesn't even have a railway route?

    3. Although investment in telecoms infrastructure can bring a lot of benefit very quickly, how can the 'traditional developing country problem of lack of maintenance be overcome? IT equipment tends to be very reliable, even in the relatively stressed environments often found in developing countries. Nevertheless, equipment faults happen and need to be fixed. Many of us have seen how bureaucracy can make it very difficult to get replacement components etc. Clearly, high levels of 'redundancy' (equipment duplication), and of spares, are needed, but the level of bureaucracy also needs to be addressed. (All too often, bureaucratic 'problems' are synonymous with bribery requests.)

    4. Pay-as-you-go has played a major part in the successful mobile phone explosion around Africa. How is this going to be adapted for Internet access? What other ways are being investigated to ensure that the ISPs will get paid for their services?

    These aren't aspects of the story that get headlines (until we see major failures because of them) but it would be good to see what progress is being made to address them.

  • Comment number 14.

    Its true that the issues the continent faces are multi-faceted. Politics, socio-economics, regulatory mechanisms all have a bearing upon the success of these kinds of projects. But, as mentioned above, there's a serious need to solve energy problems for a great number of people too. Renewables offer some solutions and are proving quite popular in our experiences. Sustainable financial models are important to move away from the dependancy also mentioned above on financial 'aid' with its many strings attached. Finally, corruption has been highlighted by others as a major issue recently. Mobile web seems an interesting way forward powered by micro-generation. This is what we're exploring.

  • Comment number 15.

    i am happy to read about this new development, but i have lots of questions about how it will benefit the common africans, with illeteracy levels reaching alarming levels. it is a long way before we really feel the gains. a lot have to be done to educate the people.

  • Comment number 16.

    I am afraid that all I can envisage from this will be the increase in 419 spam from Africa!


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