the countries with the highest fibre optic density are either rich, small or both. (Photo/ Flickr/ Kool)

Fibre Optics In Africa, The World Cup (And How A Little Internet Can Go A Long Way)

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EVEN though the internet revolution continues to grow by leaps and bounds in Africa, ICTs are neither as ubiquitous nor spreading as fast as many believe, and a digital divides persists across and within countries.

Latest data from the ITU reveals that at 163,700km, South Africa has the longest fibre optic network in Africa, nearly twice as long as second-place Algeria, which has just over 96,000km of fibre optic cables.

When adjusted for population, the countries with the highest fibre optic density are either rich, small or both – Namibia is first with nearly 3,500 km per million of the population, South Africa second at 3,102km/million and Libya third at 3,034km/ million.

By contrast, the least connected countries are Guinea (9km/million), Democratic Republic of Congo (also 9km/million) and Burundi (41km/ million).

Rich countries – and particularly small, rich ones – have more access to ICT and are able to leverage it effectively, and poor countries, less so. Being landlocked also reduces connectivity, so coastal countries tend to have better fibre optic networks than inland ones do.


In South Africa’s case, hosting the World Cup has something to do with it – when South Africa won the bid to host the World Cup in 2010, FIFA began to put major pressure on it to upgrade its Internet infrastructure to “Western” standards, so that European audiences would be able to live-stream the games.

With that, a kind of undersea cable arms race began, starting in South Africa and quickly spilling over to the eastern and western coasts of the continent.

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Still, that isn’t the whole story. Even with similar level of government policies and “official” commitment to promote ICTs in a country, the outcomes can be wildly divergent. Take the World Economic Forum’s Networked Readiness Index, which measures how economies use opportunities offered by ICT for increased competitiveness and wellbeing.

South Africa and Rwanda are ranked at position three and six in Africa respectively, although South Africa is 14 times richer per capita than Rwanda.

But when we drill a little deeper into actual indicators that make up the index, the nuances become a little clearer.

South Africa is first in the continent in the economic impact of ICT, mainly because business usage is so high. Because the economy is highly formalised (just 15% of jobs in South Africa are in the informal sector), there’s a big demand for technology to streamline business and make it more efficient.


Possibly because Rwanda is a largely agricultural economy, the economic impact of ICT is smaller – the country is 8th on this measure.

But when it comes to the social impact, the performance is reversed: Rwanda is now first in Africa in the social impact of technology, measured by improvements in wellbeing, with a particular focus on education, energy consumption, health and the environment.

Apart from the government’s enthusiastic use of technology to provide services to citizens, the One-Laptop-Per-Child policy has seen over 200,000 laptops distributed to Rwandan pupils in grade school. South Africa is 15th on the social impact indicator.

In other words, a little Internet in Rwanda goes a long way in improving the wellbeing of citizens, while in South Africa, technology (at least as explicitly promoted by government) does not have broad social benefits as such, and tends to reward capital.

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