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Bridging the Digital Divide Through Affordable Access to Relevant and Timely Information Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Henry Kimathi, Kenya Mar 4, 2008
Technology , Digital Divide   Opinions
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A quiet revolution has taken place in the last half a century - the telematics revolution. For the last 40 years the cost of processing, storing, and transmitting information has been decreasing at the rate of 50% every 18 months (Delgado et al, 1998).

There is an unprecedented amount of information available, in all sectors, supplied through a wide range of media. To give examples, three important web-based information sites, with a special focus on Pastoralism in East Africa have recently come on-line - The League for Pastoral Peoples and Endogenous Development (www.pastoralpeoples.org), Famine Early Warning Systems Network (www.fews.net) and Community Animal Health Network (www.cah-net.net).

Death to the Digital Divide?

With the growth in information, a digital divide has developed between the information rich and the information poor. Tokyo has more telephones than the whole of Africa. In Africa, one person in every 150 has access to the Internet with the majority being in South Africa and the Magreb (Delgado et al, 1998).

But the digital divide is narrowing. For instance, Moroto, a small town in the heart of Karamoja, Uganda, now has a high-speed satellite Internet link, through which it is possible to surf the net at similar speeds to those in Kampala. Mobile phone networks are rapidly expanding across the region and they have already reached Moyale in northern Kenya. Mobile phones can now be used for voice communication, text messages, or sending e-mails.

Using the text messaging service, farmers and herders can access the latest market information for their livestock and farm produce.In Somalia a network of radios is used to transmit marketing information and place pharmaceutical orders. With relatively inexpensive technology, radios can also be used to send e-mails. In Uganda information on livestock is provided in alternative adult education programmes. Songs in local languages on animal disease control are being recorded and broadcast on local radio stations. In Turkana, community video is used to communicate peace messages.

Cost of Information:

However, information has a price. Radio and film are expensive to produce despite having a wide outreach. Printed material remains an important medium but poor infrastructure adds to the cost and due to language barriers and high illiteracy levels, the material is often not accessible to the people who need it most. But all is not lost.

New initiatives currently emerging are making packaging and presentation of development content on radio possible. For instance, a radio programme in Kiswahili christened ‘Mali Shambani’ - meaning wealth in the farm - is airing on Kenya’s national radio service - the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) every Monday.

The initiative provides a sustainable opportunity for development sector players in the country to provide media content at no cost. KBC packages information provided by the content provider for the FM radio at no cost because the bulk of the provider’s revenue comes from income earned through advertisements run during the one hour programming.

Although there has been increasing liberalisation and privatisation in what was for most countries a highly controlled and inefficient sector, the use of innovative communication technology is still constrained by imperfect markets.

Cost of Ignorance: Disease

But though information is not cheap, ignorance is more expensive. Livestock disease is estimated to cost sub-Saharan Africa US$2 billion - twice what is earned by export of livestock and livestock products (King and Mugerwa, 2002).

Cost of Ignorance: Exclusion from Markets

Lack of information also excludes farmers from domestic and international markets. Livestock is the fastest growing agricultural sub-sector and over 90% of the predicted growth will occur in developing countries. In the next 20 years meat consumption will increase by one third - 220 million tonnes in 2001 to 310 million tonnes in 2020 (Delgado et al, 1998). Improved information systems allow dis-intermediation, where producers link more directly to consumers, and by decreasing the number of middlemen, increase their share of the final product value. For example a West African women’s fishing cooperative has set up a website to enable its 7,000 members to monitor export markets and negotiate prices with overseas buyers. Is this the future for the livestock sector in East Africa? Very likely.

Global markets for livestock are skewed. Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries spend US$360 billion a year subsidising their agriculture. Development aid for all sectors is just US$50 billion. The US spends US$600 per cow per year supporting its dairy industry - more than what the average person in East Africa has to live on. The situation is not improving. The EU’s final tariffs for the year 2000 were almost two-thirds above the actual tariff equivalent for 1989-1993. For the US, they were more than three-quarters higher.

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Writer Profile
Henry Kimathi

Henry Kimathi began writing poetry at the age of 15 alongside other literary works. He holds a BSc. in Agricultural Economics and is currently finalising his MBA thesis in Management Information Systems. Besides Economics, Henry is also a Web Design Specialist, Computer Programmer and a DeskTop Publishing Specialist. Henry currently works as a Regional Communications Officer with an international not-for-profit organisation and is in charge of systems administration, creative art design and press management. He has written two unpublished novelletes and is working on an African horror novel. He has penned a series of short stories and articles on a variety of topics published in journals and magazines. Henry realises little is known about his country Kenya and has thus developed a passion to right this through a website he has put together which can be accessed at www.enchanted-landscapes.com
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