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Africa Slowly Struggles to Bridge Digital Divide 


Africa is slowly bridging the gap that divides it from the digital world. Government officials and technology companies are trying to implement programs such as telemedicine and electronic education within the next five years. But problems with infrastructure make it difficult for individuals to get connected. Jade Heilmann has more from our West and Central Africa Bureau in Dakar.

Although Internet connections in Senegal are some of the most extensive and affordable in Africa, residents are still struggling to connect.

Mossa Diallo is a Senegalese college student. He does not have a computer at home. He cannot afford one. So two or three times a week he sits at a cyber cafe in downtown Dakar in order to be connected, check his email, and do his schoolwork. At about 60 cents an hour, he says this is difficult to afford.

He says buying a computer is not the only problem. Monthly Internet connection fees are also expensive.

Mamadousa Sarr visits another cyber cafe in Dakar. He has Internet at work, but not at home because he too cannot afford the connection fees.

After work, he goes to the cyber cafes. But sometimes, especially during power outages, they are full, because only some of them have back-up generators.

In Microsoft's West and Central Africa division, Wemba Opota is responsible for creating software to get Senegal's digital network up and running

He says electrical power is a major problem holding back Africa's digital evolution. But he adds the existing speed of the Internet in Senegal is also limiting.

He says bridging the digital divide is important for Africa's development, especially in education.

"I had a meeting with the minister of education, and he told me the story of some excellent students that have started their studies here in Senegal and are now in top schools in Europe and the United States," Opota said. "When they [go] to school, they are losing one to two months just because they do not know how to use a computer to surf the Internet properly."

Microsoft is also translating its new operating system into Wolof and other African languages to make it easier for local communities to use its software.

Geneva-based Global Digital Solidarity Fund is another group dedicated to the evolution of Africa's digital network.

The fund's executive secretary, Alain Clerc, believes the digital divide is also holding back Africa politically.

"If you see a map of the backbones of the world you will see that Africa is not linked to this network," he said. "It means in other words at Africa is not participating in the global discussion."

He believes African countries can leapfrog certain technologies to catch up to developed countries. For example, wireless networks can be put into place instead of laying cables across vast distances to create fiber-optic networks.

Microsoft's Opota thinks alternative technologies such as cell phones have potential in aiding progress.

"Not a lot of people have computers, but a lot of people have cellular phones, so I think there is an interesting alternative by having people having access to digital technology using cellular phones," he said.

Such alternative technology will be even move beneficial in rural areas with limited access.

Cyber cafe users, like Mossa Diallo, say it is paramount that everyone has a web-connected computer at home. But that goal appears to be achievable only far into the future.

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