Commerce of the future will take place, increasingly, on the internet. But African countries worry they won’t be equipped to embrace this brave new digital world without help from outsiders and one another.
Not enough Africans are getting online and developing websites, especially for businesses, delegates from the continent said earlier this month at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) conference in Singapore.
“We are in an information economy and the internet is the currency of that economy,” ICANN fellow Onica Makwakwa of South Africa said.
Part of the reason Africa has registered only 1.3 million domain names is that corruption makes it so expensive to buy a website. A delegate from Nigeria said government officials charge a lot of money for websites and other services when they come to power. The risk of coups and sporadic elections means they don’t know how long they will remain in office.
“Because of that, you want to make all your money now,” the delegate said.
Observers say websites wouldn’t cost so much if governments were less involved in domain registrations and left more of the business to private companies.
ICANN, which is funded through domain registration fees, could invest to improve Africa’s Internet infrastructure and domain name systems. But critics say it has been dominated by industrialized nations, sometimes at the expense of poorer countries and sometimes for geopolitical reasons.
“Why isn’t ICANN taking any actions to help the developing countries to catch up?” a Kenyan delegate asked.
Ira Magaziner, who helped start ICANN to transfer management of the internet from the United States to the rest of the world, agreed it has neglected Africa. He used his opening remarks at the Singapore conference to call on ICANN to close the digital divide.
“I still remember when I first came to Singapore in the 1970s and it was a much poorer country at the time. And it's been a miracle what it's achieved,” Magaziner said. “I think Africa and other countries that are now poor have the same potential, but they need the Internet to do it.”
One goal would be to increase the use of country-code top-level domain (ccTLDs) in Africa. A registrant could pay anywhere from $7 to $200 to buy a web address. Often the difference is between using a generic top-level domain (gTLD), such as www.mathabane.com or www.mathabane.net, versus using a ccTLD, such as www.mathabane.za in South Africa or www.mathabane.gh in Ghana.
It tends to cost more to buy ccTLDs because they are controlled by states. Lucky Masilela, chair of ICANN’s Africa working group, said stakeholders must work to bring down these prices so businesses will use local domains and tailor their content for African users.
“Local ownership is equally of importance,” Masilela said.
Getting more African websites up and running would not just earn revenues for internet registries on the continent, but also create jobs for local people in related services, according to Bob Ochieng, ICANN manager of stakeholder engagement in Africa.
Delegates said they don’t expect to rely solely on ICANN. Many spoke of increasing intracontinental partnerships and training so that they can learn from neighbors who have set up successful Internet infrastructures.
“We have brains, we have very, very good people among us,” said Seun Ojedeji, a network engineer and professor at Nigeria’s Federal University Oye-Ekiti.