Opinion: World's poorest nations stand to gain most from tech investment

M-PESA enables users to complete basic banking transactions through a mobile device. Photo by: Rachel Hinman / Rosenfeld Media / CC BY

Information and communication technologies have brought about extraordinary changes over the past two decades, transforming the lives and well-being of individuals, triggering innovations and creating competitive environments. Yet, it is only right to ask, “How have the world’s poorest nations fared as the global community embraces new technologies?”

Many of the world’s least developed countries, or LDCs, have worked hard to harness the benefits offered by increased usage of technology. ICTs have already started to transform communities and stand to do much more. An explosion in mobile phone subscriptions is plain to see: World Development Indicators show that mobile cellular subscriptions increased from 33 per 100 people in 2010 to about 68 per 100 in 2015 — with Cambodia, The Gambia, Lesotho, Mali, Nepal, Senegal and Timor-Leste reaching penetration rates of 100 percent.

The number of internet users has almost tripled between 2010 and 2015 with ICT innovations improving health care services and access to information and knowledge services. Small farmers in rural settings can now receive information on their mobile phones about market opportunities, while remote communities can keep up to date with information that is critical for effective disaster preparedness and recovery services.

Despite such clear benefits to poor communities, access to ICT services — especially for productive capacity building — is still limited. Fixed, higher quality broadband penetration in LDCs is low, representing less than 1 percent of subscriptions and mobile phone broadband representing less than 20 percent of subscriptions. By comparison, developed countries have over 30 percent fixed broadband subscriptions and over 90 percent mobile broadband.

Pioneering innovations

It is clear that there is work to be done. Faster and reliable internet is a vital communication tool, a crucial enabler for development in the world’s poorest countries, enabling them to leapfrog many stages of growth and change. Not only does fast internet lower the transaction costs for individuals and businesses to acquire and use information, it also enables the adoption of e-government, which can be a mechanism to enhance accountability and reduce bureaucratic costs. That means digitizing administrative procedures, enabling practical tools such as online forms, and enabling government departments to move away from paper-based operations.

LDCs have also pioneered technological innovation with help from broadband connections. Rwanda recently introduced the use of drones to deliver blood across the country. The drones use GPS navigational data and the cellular network to transmit information to air traffic control and the base station and for health workers to send text messages when blood is needed. Although the cost per trip is roughly the same as the current method by motorbike or ambulance, it is much faster and demonstrates where least developed countries are ahead of the technological curve.

In Uganda, tech startup Matibabu is developing a non-invasive malaria detection application for smartphones that uses a light sensor finger pad to detect malaria in red blood cells. The service cuts results waiting times to 60 seconds and then connects patients with a doctor and advises further treatment.

Barriers to access remain

Other sectors have also found ways of using broadband to benefit rural communities. In Rwanda, special ICT buses fitted with internet access have been accessing rural areas where there is a lack of electricity as part of the Mobile Communications Project. These vehicles offer computers, internet access and training to communities on how to use programs such as Word, PowerPoint and Excel.

Despite these examples of clear successes and benefits, many LDCs face barriers to accessing and using broadband. These include inadequate infrastructure to support ICTs, high costs, low levels of literacy and scarce public sector resources arising from competing national development needs. For those LDCs that are also landlocked, their remote geographical constraints often result in greater dependence on bordering countries for broadband infrastructure development.

“Public-private partnerships help ensure the provision of affordable access to the poor, especially to those in rural areas.”

— Gyan Chandra Acharya, under secretary-general and high representative for least developed countries, landlocked developing countries and small island developing states, United Nations

Other challenges — including access to reliable energy sources, availability of literacy and technical skills, and the quality of ICT software and applications — can have a significant impact on a nation’s capacity to benefit from technology.

Affordability is a key challenge. Most of the nations with the least affordable mobile broadband prices are LDCs. In nine of these countries, the cost of the service corresponds to more than 20 percent of gross national income per capita, thus making it unaffordable for most of the population.

It is clear that substantial investment is needed for broadband development in these parts of the world. A recent World Bank study revealed that an estimated $6 billion would be required to create the broadband infrastructure needed to provide universal coverage in 24 African countries, 16 of which were least developed countries. Meeting such levels of required investment is a significant challenge for LDCs. It is therefore imperative for the private sector and national governments to take the lead in providing internet infrastructure and services. Public-private partnerships help ensure the provision of affordable access to the poor, especially to those in rural areas.

Potential for growth and PPPs

Across Africa we have seen the potential for growth when the private sector is involved as a partner. For example in Kenya, Eneza Education, a mobile education platform, tailors educational content to local contexts using mobile phones, SMS and other platforms, with a focus on educating girls. Keeping costs low, Eneza charges around $0.50 per month and focuses on rural communities. The M-Pesa digital payment system in Kenya and Tanzania is a well-known example of an initiative that creates additional income for more than 80,000 agents, demonstrating how broadband can increase output in employment in service sectors such as finance, education and health care.

LDCs benefit from focusing on both supply (including broadband infrastructure to ensure universal access) and demand (affordability and higher levels of education), especially in ICT skills strategies if they are to reap maximum benefits from investment in broadband infrastructure. As the international community strives to improve access to broadband globally, we must also be mindful of the inequality that can spring from digital connectivity. It is essential that ICTs exist in languages that are accessible to the majority of citizens and that access to technology is equally available to all.

For a number of years my office has been supporting the establishment of a Technology Bank for Least Developed Countries, which will help the world’s poorest scientific research and innovation base, promote networking among research institutions and help the least developed countries to access and utilize critical and appropriate technologies. Equal access to fast, affordable and reliable broadband services in least developed countries will be vital to the success of this new United Nations institution.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Gyan Chandra Acharya

    Gyan Chandra Acharya is the United Nations under-secretary general and high representative for Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States. He is an active member of the Broadband Commission and his office has spearheaded the establishment of the new Technology Bank for Least Developed Countries.