Fibre-optic hopes for East Africa

Internet connection31 October 2011

The fibre-optic broadband finally linking East Africa in 2009 was a massive multi-million-pound investment, but the expectations are just as substantial. Three submarine fibre-optic cables form the backbone of the high-speed network, which is hoped to spark the region’s economy.

Prime ministers and presidents throughout the region have claimed that the cables will play an integral part in the economic development of their countries, and Jakaya Kikwete, President of Tanzania, sees them as a way of making East Africans "become part of the global economy".

Transformative event

"The arrival of fibre-optic cables has been generally perceived as a hugely transformative event. There seems to be a lot of optimism that East African businesses will now be able to compete globally without some of the hindrances that they used to face," says Dr Mark Graham at the University of Oxford.

Dr Graham is leading a research project aiming to chart the change and the effects on the region, funded by ESRC and the Department for International Development. The promises of Fibre-Optic Broadband: A Pipeline for Economic Development in East Africa is tracking the impact of the technology transition while it is unfolding, focusing on three economic sectors: eco-tourism, tea production and business process outsourcing.

Last major region without fibre-optic access

The project focuses on Kenya and Rwanda, both cited as countries where information and communications technologies (ICTs) will have significant transformative effects. Both have national development plans ("Vision 2030" and "Vision 2020" respectively) that aim to transform those countries into middle-income economies. And in both cases ICTs are presented as being integral to these transformations.

The ICT optimism is not surprising, given the scale of change. East Africa was the last major region on Earth without fibre-optic broadband Internet access, forced to rely on slow and costly satellite connections for access until 2009.

Transferring cash with mobiles

But although the hopes are high, there isn’t much data available to base confident predictions on, explains Dr Graham.

"The M-Pesa money transfer service in Kenya is perhaps the most visible and influential example that can be pointed to. It has allowed people all over the country to easily transfer cash using their mobile phones - something which is especially useful for the millions of people that don't have bank accounts," he says.

"ICTs undoubtedly have the potential to enable important economic transformations, but it remains to be seen what the actual effects of altered connectivity will be in both countries. This is what we hope to find out with our research," adds Dr Graham.