• The facts at hand

    Africa may still lag behind the rest of the world when it comes to e-governance but the digital divide is slowly closing.

    The facts at hand

    In the past, gaining access to local state information required some digging. You would have to scour through newspapers, listen to radio broadcasts and keep a close eye on TV adverts. Now, all it takes is a quick search on Google.

    Even though Africa is the least-connected continent with just under 27% of the population having internet access, mobile platform Opera Mediaworks says that as the years goes by, more and more citizens will rely on it as their go-to source for information.

    E-governance isn’t a new concept. However, it holds the potential to revolutionise the way governments communicate with their citizens.

    Patrick Ngulube, a professor at Unisa who wrote a journal on e-government accessibility in sub-Saharan Africa, says it could improve service delivery and enhance information between the state and public. It may even help foster e-democracy.

    According to the UN, e-government can also stimulate economic growth and promote social inclusion, particularly in disadvantaged and vulnerable groups.

    However, like most budding developments in Africa, e-government cannot prosper without overcoming its challenges – the main stumbling block being infrastructure.

    ‘It is evident that e-government has the possibility of making government processes transparent and accountable. The implementation of e-government programmes mainly hinges on sound ICT infrastructures, clearly defined strategies and visions, strong government commitment, information literacy and connectivity.

    ‘Sub-Saharan Africa has to overcome these obstacles before it can have fully functional programmes,’ says Ngulube.

    While talk is cheap, enforcing e-government services are not. McKinsey & Company’s Lions Go Digital report states that e-government services could cost a nation up to several billion US dollars annually to initiate, maintain and improve upon.

    However, there is light at the end of the very expensive tunnel. The adage ‘you have to spend money to make money’ very well applies because, according to research by Secure Identity Alliance, e-government will save the public up to US$50 billion per year by 2020.

    Although progress is relatively slow, positive developments have taken shape in certain areas across the continent.

    Even though Africa is the least-connected continent with just under 27% of the population having internet access, more citizens will rely on it

    One country determined to reshape its ICT policies is South Africa. Its Western Cape, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces have developed e-government strategies centred around transforming provincial state services to benefit citizens and businesses.

    The South Africa Connect broadband policy commits the country to installing broadband connectivity with speeds of 10 Mbps to about 2 000 state offices, schools, libraries and health facilities in the Western Cape. It includes the promise to place 384 WiFi hot spots in government buildings across the province so that citizens can access free WiFi.

    Ultimately, South Africa’s goal is to deliver an average download speed of 100 Mbps by 2030, while half of the population should be connected by 2020.

    In line with its digital goals, South Africa has taken its state website mobile. Launched in February, Vuk’uzenzele allows users to view, among others, the latest jobs available in the public service; tender, news and radio bulletins; and information on services such as renewing drivers’ or car licences.

    The country also put citizen reporting into play with its Lungisa website. The platform allows Cape Town citizens to report issues relating to water, electricity and other public services, while using social media to fix them. So far, more than 1 700 complaints have been filed and resolved.

    Johannesburg has a similar app, Find & Fix, which lets citizens report problems such as potholes to the Johannesburg Roads Agency. This app uses geotagging to identify the location of potholes – making repair time a lot faster.

    Nigeria has also adopted an e-government strategy. With support from Korea International Co-operation Agency, the country has developed a US$8 million project to improve its public-sector service and governance from 2014 to 2018. Titled Capacity Building of E-government in Nigeria, the master plan draws on South Korea’s experience in e-government development and ICT promotion to help the country achieve its connection targets.

    Also in West Africa, Ghana’s Committee on Government Assurances has initiated a parliamentary digital project. Completely kitted with mobile phone app accessibility, text-message viability and social media, the interactive platform allows citizens to engage with and provide input on promises made by ministers. According to the press release, the website enables active participation in assessing government so that the population can hold the state more accountable on pledges that were not implemented.

    While these e-government services are a step in the right direction, ‘unequal access to ICT such as PCs, the internet, smartphones and other internet-related technologies is another challenge facing governments in the region,’ says Ngulube.

    At present, Africans are more likely to use feature phones than smartphones, even though Informa Telecoms & Media estimates that by 2018, smartphone connections will rise to 412 million. According to Opera Mediaworks, despite its vast economic challenges, the continent is rapidly gaining ground in terms of internet usage thanks to mobile phones.

    In fact, almost 58% of Africa’s population use mobile phones to gain access to the internet, while Kenya’s cellphone internet users amount to nearly 100%.

    Consequently, governments have responded by using text messaging services in innovative ways – particularly in the health department. Zambia’s Ministry of Health launched Mwana, a programme that delivers early infant HIV test results via text message more than twice as fast than before. Between 2012 and 2013, the number of facilities making use of the service rose sharply from 271 to 585.

    ‘Unequal access to ICT such as PCs, the internet, smartphones and other internet-related technologies is another challenge’

    Rwanda’s RapidSMS and mUbuzima systems help prevent infant and maternal mortality. The service, which tracks pregnant women and newborns, is broken into two components. The former sends a text message that community health workers (CHWs) can use to monitor a woman’s pregnancy, delivery and the first year of her infant’s life.

    The other uses interactive voice response technology for CHW team leaders in each village to submit monthly data relating to sick children, nutritional status, vaccinations, supervision, maternal health and deaths at home.

    As of 2013, the number of pregnant women reached by the mHealth (mobile health) system increased to nearly 2 400, while the number of CHWs trained to use the system skyrocketed to more than 3 700, says the WHO.

    In East Africa, Kenya’s iCow helps dairy farmers track the fertility cycle of their animals, thereby maximising breeding potential. The app, launched in 2010, provides tips about animal nutrition, calf management and milk production efficiency to increase farmers’ milk yields and, ultimately, their income. According to its website, milk yields per animal have reportedly increased by up to three litres per animal after using iCow for seven months.

    ‘Although some countries might have moved steps closer to e-government in the interim, the conclusion that the electronic platform is still in its infancy in sub-Saharan Africa is inescapable,’ says Ngulube.

    By Melissa Le Roux
    Image: iStock