I am at the Web4Dev conference in Nairobi, Kenya. The conference brings together people from all over the world to discuss how the web can contribute to development. One overarching topic are the Millennium Development Goals and how information and communication technologies (ICT) can help to achieve them.

I will give a presentation tomorrow together with Nynke Kruiderink from IICD the lessons learnt from the web2fordev conference and some thesis about its implications for development aid. Here is a bit of background information from the official conference website:

Since its inception at a conference organized by the World Bank in 2003, the Web for Development meetings are now well established as a forum for the web community of UN agencies, and international development civil society organizations interested in using their expertise to show how the Internet can promote development.

The fourth conference, to be held in Nairobi, Kenya, under the theme Driving economic and social development with the Internet, will focus on helping developing countries bridge the digital divide. As the seat of the UN headquarters in the developing world, the Kenyan capital offers participants a first-hand experience of what is involved in coming up with new ideas and solutions customised for an environment with limited computer skills, inadequate telecommunications and other infrastructure that still lags behind that of wealthier nations.

The first day started with some welcome speeches and this was followed by a panel discussion with the following participants:

  • Dr. Bitange Ndemo, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication, Kenya
  • Dr. Shem Ochuodho, Expert on Internet and Information and Communication Technologies in Kenya, Rwanda and Sub-Sahara Africa
  • Mr. Gajanan Kasbekar, Vice President, TATA Interactive, India
  • Ms. Ashima Bhardwaj, Vice President, One World Youth Project
  • Ms. Njeri Rionge, Founder of Kenya’s ISP Wananchi.com
  • Mr. Adrian Wooster, Community Broadband Network (CBN)

The discussion started with some general statements and then focused mainly on the issue of connectivity. The debate highlighted the different dimensions of the digital divide. This included economic, technological, social and political aspects. Especially rural areas face difficulties to gain Internet access compare to urban areas. The gap widens when it comes to broadband. One concern, according to Bitango Ndemo, is whether it is feasible to implement broadband and to prove the benefit for the investment.

Another challenge are high illiteracy rates in many developing countries. One participants demanded that the digital divide is only bridged when the most vulnerable communities are reached.

According to Adrian Wooster it is more challenging to give access in many urban areas from a technological point of view. With wireless technology it is fairly easy to give access to rural areas. Especially in informal settlements it technically challenging.

The debate continued with contributions from the audience. One remark was that policy makers are the “gatekeepers” to slow down or accelerate the use of ICT. The technology is there, mobile phone, personal computer and the Internet will merge soon, so it is up to policy makers to create a framework to flourish.

One other key challenge to connectivity is the lack of energy. The prices are still very high and with power cuts it is a challenge to run for example servers. In rural areas car batteries are often used to charge mobile phones.

Another issue raised was about language, for example in Rwanda over ninety per cent of the people do not speak English, but so far most content is offered in English (e.g. scientific research). A participant raised his concern about the missing competition in Sudan, so that costs of Internet access are often higher than in Europe. In many cases the quality of the connection is not sufficient.

A fundamental problem is the fast developing Internet offers a lot of great features, which often need a broadband connection. Whereas email and RSS feeds can be accessed with low bandwidth, many other features such as social networks and other web2.0 tools need broadband and instant or continuous access. One example mentioned are students at Kenyan universities, who quite easily read their emails, but they want to surf on Facebook, which takes a lot of bandwidth.

“It is not that we do not have ideas.” There are a lot of practical examples especially from the youth, said Gajanan Kasbekar, but a major obstacle remains. How to commercialize these ideas to make them work in the long run. Njeri Rionge added a similar remark. She recommended that ICT-solutions shall be orientated on the market to make them successful. In my opinion businesses play a key role in achieving better connectivity, but many solution such as social media and its implication has nothing to do with markets. Tomorrow is workshop day and I hope to find time to blog more.