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Commonwealth Effort to Link Rural Africa to Information Technologies

Improving communication in rural areas is the subject of the latest report by the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organization. It asks governments to back projects to bring information technologies to rural areas, including cell phones and the Internet. From Blantyre, Malawi, VOA's reporter Lameck Masina has the story.

The report is called the Commonwealth African Rural Connectivity Initiatives. It analyses the capacity of 18 African countries to strengthen information and communication technologies, or ICT.

The study says in recent years many African countries have seen dramatic growth in the number of mobile phone networks. But it says more needs to be done. For one thing, it notes that only five percent of African households are connected to the Internet.

The report says some Commonwealth countries, like Malaysia and India, have made significant progress in rural connectivity. On the other hand, Sierra Leone and Zambia do not have advanced communications technologies – one reason for their slow economic growth.

Stakeholders in the ITC industry have commented on the report's findings and recommendations.

Bashir Patel is the director of programs and business development at the London headquarters of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organization.

"Clearly," he says, "there are lessons that can be learned [from the research's findings, including best practices] deployed in other countries. There are examples of projects that are being done in countries such as Canada, Malaysia, Australia, and India. These are [successful examples of] connecting rural communities and how it can be done."

The report encourages local ownership of telecommunications projects financed by partnerships between the public and private sectors. That model has worked well in industrialized countries like Canada, the United States and Australia.

In Malawi, the government says it is taking steps to implement some of the study's recommendations.

Patricia Kaliati is Malawi's minister of information. She says the government is encouraging private-public partnerships, especially in the effort to extend the Internet into rural areas.

"What we are looking to do," says Kaliati, "is to [boost] ICT to rural areas by [building] telecenters. The target date for having ICT in our cities is 2012, and 2015 in our villages."

She says the telecenters fall under a government initiative called Universal Access Policy, which is designed to get information technologies to rural and other under-served communities.

Kaliati notes that Malawi is already implementing another of the report's recommendations on the best way to promote the growth of ICT in Africa. She says Malawi has privatized the telecommunications sector.