An effective regulatory framework is essential for countries trying to make the most of technology, says Ken Lohento, ICT4D Programme Coordinator at the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation. A specialist in the design and implementation of ICT projects to support agriculture and rural development, Lohento offers some lessons from his native Benin.
What does the hosting of eLearning Africa 2012 mean for Benin?
Benin will benefit greatly from eLearning Africa, from the education and ICT for development perspectives, but also in terms of tourism. eLearning Africa is the main international conference dealing with ICT, education and training in Africa, with over 1700 participants drawn from international experts, development practitioners and researchers amongst others, so it offers a unique opportunity for those in these sectors in Benin to network, acquire knowledge, be informed of innovations but also to showcase Benin’s issues and progress. Education is the main foundation of socio-economic emergence for a developing country like Benin, and ICT applications should lie at the core of strategies for a country that has the ambition to become the “Digital Quarter” of Africa and a service-based economy. So key international opportunities like eLearning Africa that promote these domains are to be seized upon. Having attended the conference in different countries, I’m thus very happy that the organisers have selected Benin and that the government is supporting the event.
The theme of eLA 2012 is eLearning and Sustainability. What challenges does Benin face in implementing the Sector Policy Statement on which the country’s ICT policy is founded?
In the Sector Policy Statement adopted in 2008, Benin put the focus on two pillars which are e-government and e-business. New projects are being implemented such as the e-Benin project and the e-Business project. These are great outcomes and initiatives. The basic but key challenge I see is how to develop and maintain the collective commitment of all stakeholders involved in the implementation of these initiatives, to truly work towards the achievement of these projects’ results. The effective commitment of governmental institutions is key. E-government cannot become a reality if, for example, the government’s main website is still old-fashioned, if government officials are still using yahoo and hotmail email addresses for official communication (unlike the practice in Senegal and other West African countries). For years, we’ve undertaken many projects without results. The fundamental legal framework governing business, which has nothing to do with ICTs, should be improved in an inclusive way. Better regulation of ICTs is needed, a regulation which is independent of the ICT market giants and the state. It’s also a pity that for years we’ve had bad yet expensive connectivity, even if things are improving. You face a nightmare if you try to download an audio or video file in cybercafés or in most connected households in Benin. On a number of occasions, there have been problems with the optic fibre cables to the extent that the country has had no Internet access at all for several days. For example from the 6th to the 12th of January 2012, there was no Internet access in Benin, reportedly because there was a fire where the technical equipment of the optic fibre was hosted. Ultimately, these are management and maintenance problems which have for years prevented citizens and business from benefiting from the ICTs, whatever projects and policy document we may adopt.
What role might ICTs play in helping African countries reach the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals for 2015?
ICTs are at the core of all human activities today. In Benin, for example, we today have around 90% of mobile telephony penetration, and this brings new opportunities in all sectors. ICT applications are drivers of progress in sectors such as education and health, so they are now central to the attainment of all MDGs, whether or not this can be achieved by 2015.
As we start a new year, what “resolution(s)” would you like to see adopted on the Continent as far as sustainable development goes?
ICT innovations should be better promoted and supported in key sectors such as education, health and agriculture. ICT regulation should be more professional and inclusive, independent from ICT market giants and from the state, giving voice to all stakeholders, in particular civil society. Universal access funds must be more efficiently used and managed to enable affordable access in rural areas. Civil society interested in ICT should better organise itself and contribute to ICT policy making, in Benin in particular, but more generally in Africa.