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Cameroon Tech Conference Seeks New Options for Africa

Technology specialists from around the world are gathering in Yaounde, capital of Cameroon, for a three-day conference that begins Monday. Its goal is to find practical ways to spread communication technology throughout Africa. Selah Hennessy reports from the VOA West Africa Bureau in Dakar.

Conference organizers say now is the time for Africans to discuss how to overcome barriers to expanding information technologies, namely mobile phones and the Internet.

Petra Chapkui, president of the France-based advocacy organization in charge of the conference (Sud&TIC), says guest speakers from around the world will talk about communication strategies in their own countries and help develop a model that will work for Africa.

She says one challenge in Africa is that many places still do not have trained staff or the right systems for information technology.

And a second challenge is getting the money necessary for the technological expansion.

Petra says African governments and the international community are finally realising the importance of good communication technology in Africa and focusing long-needed attention on the sector.

Yet, even though there are many obstacles, advances are taking place in Africa. According to the Geneva-based International Communications Union, there were about 23-thousand Internet users in sub-Saharan Africa in 1995. Now, there are more than ten million.

Bill Noble, a director of the U.S.-based non-profit Africare, is working on a project to introduce radio to small villages in Mali and Niger. He agrees that telephone and Internet access has improved across West Africa in recent years. "All the governments ... are trying to invest resources to improve communication because everyone understands that without good communication systems, your countries are going to lag behind, (and with them they will) be able to compete in the economy and improve the ability of the country to produce basic services," he said.

But Noble says installing the needed technological equipment is sometimes difficult, especially in the rugged and often remote parts of Africa. "I think [there are] environmental constraints: the heat, the rain, directly impact the operation system of these systems. I think maybe because they were designed not to be used in a tropical and sub-tropical environment," he said.

Noble says, given these conditions, international donors must understand that funding the technology revolution in Africa is going to be expensive.

But conference organizers say that, for the future of Africa, this is a price that must be paid. The United Nations estimates that the nearly one billion people of Africa make up less than three percent of the world's Internet users.