Rory Cellan-Jones

Day Two: Water or the web?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 15 Sep 09, 08:21 GMT

What does Africa need more - easy access to fresh water or better cheaper internet connections? A no-brainer you might think, but a journey I took out from Mombasa into the countryside set me thinking.

Martin RogenaMy guide was Martin Rogena, a Kenyan working for an organisation called KickStart, which supplies irrigation pumps to farmers across East Africa. Martin is also a big believer in the power of the internet to transform countries like Kenya.

We set off down a bumpy road through a poor suburb of Mombasa, lined with small shops. Every other one seemed to be selling mobile phones or offering to recharge them - and every few yards there was a stand selling fresh water at around 20p a litre.

Mobile phone shop in MombasaAs we drove, Martin explained that Kickstart was a charity but it didn't give away the "Moneymaker" pumps it supplies - "if you did that, the farmers would just stick them in a corner and not use them." So they charge around £50 for a portable pump - far short of the cost of making and supplying them - and they are now in use right across drought-stricken areas of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

Our destination was a little settlement among some low hills about 10 miles from the beach where the Seacom cable bringing broadband to the region comes ashore.

The farmers who worked a small patch of land there had clubbed together to buy a pump. They use it to draw water from the hole they excavated last year to collect rain, a supply now dwindling fast after a very dry period.

Water stand in MombasaWe watched as they watered their crop of tomatoes which, along with a field of maize and some other vegetables, was the means of support for around 20 people. Then we visited their homes - simple mud huts, with chickens and dogs sharing the yard where the children played.

These people had very little - finding the money for the pump had obviously been a big deal - but nearly all of them had mobile phones. While there was no electricity in the village, a tall 3g phone mast stands on the hill above it. The farmers explained that the phones - which they have to take to a nearby shop to recharge - had made them feel much more connected to the rest of Kenya.

Then, as we sat outside one of the huts, Martin Rogena got out his laptop, plugged in a broadband dongle, and went online at a reasonable speed - he was picking up the signal from the nearby mast, which is in turn linked to the fibre-optic cable at the coast. But why, I asked, did a faster internet connection matter to a charity which was trying to alleviate the impact of drought?

Rory Cellan-Jones and Martin Rogena outside a hut with a laptop computerHe explained that Kickstart collects data from every pump it supplies across the region, sending staff armed with laptops to talk to the farmers and make sure they are getting the right results. From its Nairobi office, It also needs to communicate with donors around the world and with its branch office in Tanzania.

The charity is already finding that faster broadband is making communication easier - and is cutting costs, though perhaps not to quite the extent that has been promised.

"Any dollar we save means we get more pumps to the people," says Martin, "and our mission is to end poverty."

The farmers had never been on the internet - but they too were excited about what it might mean for them. "It will help us find information to help us improve the way we farm." said one. "We will use it for marketing our crops to other countries outside Kenya," said another.

We headed back into Mombasa, past lines of women carrying water containers on their heads. This country is short of lots of things - water, electricity, books for schools. But there is a great thirst for better connectivity - and who are we to say that they've got their priorities wrong?


  • Comment number 1.

    "This country is short of lots of things - water, electricity, books for schools. But there is a great thirst for better connectivity - and who are we to say that they've got their priorities wrong?"

    Well without water they'll die, without electricity they won't be able to get the internet anyway, and without schooling they won't be able to read the internet even if they get it. I know we're not allowed to comment on other culture's priorities these days, but really this is a pretty fatuous statement to make.

    I can't find the link (although I've got a screen cap here) but Gordon Brown made a similar argument that the internet was as "vital as water and gas."

    The internet is a wonderful, wonderful tool You can (as the farmers pointed out) make vast strides in self-education from it. You can engage with people through social networks. But also, it is full of lightweight nonsense like [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]href="">dancing hamsters etc etc etc.

    So yes, internet access will ultimately transform the lives of countless Africans, but to even mention in the same breath as the need for adequate sanitation, irrigation, healthcare and education is pretty insulting to the memory of the millions who have died for the lack thereof.

  • Comment number 2.

    That's a great question. Water or web. I think if we prioratize, it would be first water and other basic amenities and then it would be web. If they have PC, they need Web. If they have basic facilities, they might have PC.

    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 3.

    What Africa needs (I've been to Kenya several times) is stable un corrupt leaders. That was the opinion expressed to me the last time I was there by a gentleman I met who worked as an architect in Nairobi. When you have that, then you won't have money syphoned off into Swiss banks allowing more to be used by the population for such things as the internet, water purification, and other things we take for granted.

  • Comment number 4.

    Maybe if we put the so called globalisation on a level playing field footing and paid the third world slave labourers the rate for the job and then from there allowed them to create their own consumer society they would get both and also make sure elections were not fixed for the western candidate to win all the time, which is what I suspect happens. The last uprising in Kenya indicated the later to me but then I reckon I am a sceptical cynic. Maybe we could allow them spend their profits which at present go to western companies to build up their own economy hopefully on a least waste full lower CO2 planned basis starting on producing only necessary items to start with. This would have the added advantage in forcing British companies invest capital in their own country to the benefit of the whole population and not just their share holders.
    By the way for anyone to suggest these people are historically and genetically not capable of doing this is arrogant nonsense.

    As an aside to the moderator I notice that your spell check system needs me to run to the dictionary at times because you seem to favour the USA spelling - the word favo(u)r is simple example. Just pointing this out.

  • Comment number 5.

    I used to record cigarette adverts for Africa (to my Shame).

    The adverts made would have broken every advertising rule and law you could think of over here, but went out on air in Africa without a problem. The ads played to the make ego, saying you would be more of a man if you smoked - ideas we find disgusting over here, whether you smoke or not. It also used to say you would be as posh and clever as people in London, because in many places in Africa, Londoners were seen as some sort of aspirational state (I have no idea why!)

    Although I see the value of better communications in Africa, I worry about those selling the solutions and how they will make money out of the African people. Despite better rules these days in Africa, when you drive into a small township, there is no one to tell you not to lie and cheat. I can imagine the salesmen saying things like "With this lap top, your family will never starve as you will be able to get anything they need on the internet." Yes, they will say things like that.

    So, it is not as simple as the choice between water and wireless, it is about HOW this is all introduced, and can it be done in a balanced way that is actually of benefit to the people of these small, often struggling, communities.

    I am reminded of an occasion 20 years or more ago when a generous US Charity shipped a whole pile of tractors to an area in Africa. 2 years later, the machines were rusting in a field for the farmers could not afford the fuel.

    I am sorry, but while it is still possible for false hope to be given to AIDS sufferers with homoeopathy and fake medicines, almost unopposed, I am very suspicious of the way communication will be introduced to Africa and who will be the greater beneficiary.

  • Comment number 6.

    I believe that the charitys there are trying to do their best to help, and honestly do have good intentions, I just sincerly hope that Gurubears predictions dont come true as that would be a tragedy. Its a pity that there is such difficulty to get water to everyone but it is improving so with anyluck, Rory being over there may raise a bit more awareness of the mindset of Africans and the choices that they have to make.

  • Comment number 7.

    To paulcarps #1:

    Maybe you could identify the main reasons why water and sanitation have not been introduced, why aid hasn't reached the right people and then reconsider if greater connectivity will make it more or less likely.

  • Comment number 8.

    I can see argument for having water, food and stable government first, but surely the idea is that good communications, whether by mobile phone or internet connection, will ease trade and enable proper democracy, helping people be able to afford the necessities and hold their governments to account? The technology isn't just a luxury full of dancing hamsters; it's a means to an end for (helping) solving the real problems.

  • Comment number 9.

    The answer to the question is already on the lips of the farmers. "It will help us [...] to help [ourselves]"
    Certainly a more sustainable solution than simply handing out the water.
    As the old saying ends, teach a man to fish, and you feed him forever...

  • Comment number 10.

    _Ewan_ wrote:

    I can see argument for having water, food and stable government first, but surely the idea is that good communications, whether by mobile phone or internet connection, will ease trade and enable proper democracy...


    One of the big issues here is power. In the UK our power use has increased enormously since the introduction of the internet. And it is not going to slow down - I wonder sometimes at the contradiction between a government aspiration to reduce power useage (and therefore power reliance) while promoting an "always on" society!

    In Africa, power is even more of a scant resource than water. Like water, it has similar problems. Africa has a population of around 500 million, while being ten times the landmass of India. Large numbers of the population are spread out and remote meaning that getting power to them is very expensive. Emphasis has to be on locally generated power, and that often means wind technologies.

    However, wind turbines are expensive to build and maintain. Communication providers may be tempted to add small turbines, however, communications are not the only thing that eat power, and I can see many villages with electricity that spends half the time off!

    This does not mean this should not be pursued, however, but it does mean that you cannot change the way a community works, and then let that community fall over when their power runs out. Once you give a community modern communications systems, you need to make sure that this is permanent and not abused.

    As for democracy - well, China is rapidly becoming the most connected place on the planet, but despite that, democracy does not seem to be getting implanted into that society in a hurry.

  • Comment number 11.

    This seems to be becoming more of a discussion around priorities than anything else, and these kinds of debates are guaranteed to go on forever and never come anywhere near a conclusion. The same questions could be asked in our countries - whether spending should go on new jobs, roads, health, the environment, cutting CO2 emmissions and so on. They're all important, but you have to start somewhere.

    Tim Unwin, Chair of ICT4D at Royal Holloway, recently commented that if all the billions of development aid had been spent on simply building a stable electrical grid throughout Africa, then that would be a major achievement. For him, that is a priority, for others it's something else. Of course, this question is better directed at East Africans, and once many of them are able to connect to these kinds of forums a little easier the debate can really begin.

    The last time I was in Kenya - about a year ago - we drove from Karen to Nairobi. About half-way we left the tarmac and hit dust roads. Lucky it wasn't the rainy season. The comment from the driver? That the highest priority for the Kenyan government should be to sort out the transportation infrastructure because it took way too long to travel around the country, let alone move goods, and this was costing businesses dear. Another opinion, and another 'priority'.

    All that many of my African friends ask for is a level playing field, and whether or not the arrival of high-speed Internet is high on many people's list of priorities, it is certainly a major step forward. Let's not also forget that with improved communication simple things like co-ordinating the repair of broken water pumps, and the provision of new ones, becomes considerably easier. Let's not forget either how much corrupt and evil regimes hate the kind of open environment that information technologies can foster, and how improved information access turns communities into content generators as well as consumers. ICTs do come with their problems, but they can potentially create an environment in which much can thrive - democratisation and business among them.

    Now that the cable is here, let's watch and see what happens. I think many people who question its priority will be pleasantly surprised.

  • Comment number 12.

    Farmers who have to physically carry their goods to market will benefit from being able to phone someone at the market, in advance, and determine whether today's price is worth the walk. Those without that ability will have to sell their goods for whatever price they find when they arrive, and may therefore always remain hostage to the market traders. Likewise, a farmer who is having to irrigate his or her crops using a foreign-made mechanical pump, will better be able to keep that pump running if they can order parts to maintain it from the supplier, before beginning the walk to the nearest town to collect them. Being better connected has implications far more practical than some vague, general desire to be in-touch with the outside world.

  • Comment number 13.

    Your reporter got it right in the opening ambit, it is a no-brainer. Water of course. What's the use of having cheaper internet access if most of Africa doesn't have electricity let alone computers.

    I've spent most of my life in Africa and many people from the developed world have no idea the shortages of basic services they have to endure.

    I spent 2 years in Ghana living and working just outside Manso Nkwanta, a regional capital, and remember the place no electricity for two months.After 4 days the local "fresh" fishmonger came down to our camp and asked if he could plug his chest freezer into our power supply.

    It would be good if Africa could have all it needs but let's concentrate on the basics first.

  • Comment number 14.

    Anyone tried asking the women, as it is they who do most of the rural work?

  • Comment number 15.

    Well I know what's more important in Africa to the western business world. The web.

    More money can be made from selling the web to Africa than can be made from giving Africans a stable continent with proper amenities, at least that seems to be the attitude that's around at the moment.

    And I'm sure each and every tinpot dictator in Africa is glad the west is willing to sell the web to them, because it means they can carry on with their oppression of the poor whilst making some more money on the side and keeping their cronies in the luxury they are accustomed to.

    And how many call-centres are going to be opening in Africa and having jobs "outsourced" from the UK and other European countries going there? I'll bet there will be quite a few and the workers in those call-centres will be no better off than sweatshop workers.

    Africa needs to get it's priorities in order. Water, food, basic education are more important than the www.

  • Comment number 16.

    1. At 08:55am on 15 Sep 2009, paulcarps
    3. At 09:41am on 15 Sep 2009, Define_real
    14. At 4:37pm on 15 Sep 2009, kunjani

    RT, FF, or whatever is said in twitterdom:)

    'What does Africa need more - easy access to fresh water or better cheaper internet connections?'

    I guess emailing for an Evian delivery might avoid dying of thirst, but not be the best use of funds in the circumstances.

  • Comment number 17.

    One question of anyone here more in the know about African Issues, especially in the less developed (and often more unstable) countries:

    Will an internet based communication system become yet another resource vulnerable to terrorism and instability?

    Cutting off power and spoiling water is a common tactic already, I do wonder if the internet would be next on the list.

    This is not a reason NOT to do it, of course, but should probably be born in mind.

    I get itchy about the idea of reliance on any one system. In the UK we are being pushed towards reliance on the internet both technically and socially. We already have sulking teens when their connection goes down, and panicking companies when they lose the ability to send an email. And we are in a STABLE part of the world.

  • Comment number 18.

    What Africa needs is not food aid. We need a reliable internet connection from the fibre. This alone will make us access the various outsourced jobs currently to India and other countries. We will then have money to buy food, clean water, health, sanitation and the good life associated with Londoners :)

  • Comment number 19.

    I knew that water was a big problem in Africa, but I had no idea how important being "connected" via the internet and mobile phones was so important. I suppose in the West we are so used to these things we just assume that poor people wouldn't have much need for it all. I was wrong. Dan

  • Comment number 20.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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