East Africa was the last major region on Earth without fibre-optic broadband Internet access, and until the summer of 2009 had been forced to rely on slow and costly satellite connections for access. However, after hundreds of millions of pounds of investment, the region has recently been connected via the first of three submarine fibre optic broadband cables, thus, in theory, allowing much greater speeds at much lower prices.
The expectations for the cable were high. Tanzania’s president, for example, saw the cable as a way to allow East Africans to ‘become part of the global economy.’ Politicians and commentators from around the world hailed the potential of the Internet to spark economic development and allow East African businesses and entrepreneurs to market their strengths, unhindered by many of the previous limiting effects of distance.
However, these projections were often made in the absence of data about current East African communications practices. By using surveys, interviews and in-depth observations, this project examined the expectations and stated potentials of broadband Internet in East Africa and compared those expectations to on-the-ground effects that broadband connectivity is having.
Although this project provided a much needed empirical look at the effects of broadband within the contexts of the Global South, a long-term goal of the project was to lay the groundwork for a larger study in which the effects of broadband will be examined with a much broader sample of economic actors in East Africa.
This project allowed for a movement beyond existing research in several ways:
- The recent upgrading of East Africa’s communication infrastructure offered a unique opportunity to document empirically the short and medium-term effects of technologies on economic development at the moment of change.
- A range of discourses about the benefits of broadband connectivity were compared against the material effects that ICTs are having. Doing so allowed for better conceptualisations of how technologies can influence local, regional and global economic relationships.
- By focusing on the intersections between ICTs and economic development in East Africa, this project significantly contributed to literatures on development, technology and economic change in the region.
- Given that Kenya is the first of a cluster of East African countries to have broadband connectivity, the implications for the larger region could be learned from the Kenyan case as broadband is ultimately brought to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and other countries in subsequent years.
Throughout Africa, there is a significant potential for lasting social and economic change brought about by the provision of high speed internet, and it is therefore imperative that we develop better understandings of the specific ways that people and businesses in East Africa have used the Internet to circumvent a previous lack of economic opportunity.
By uncovering the most effective implementations and best practices, this study is able to conclusively underpin future policy and strategies related to the intersections between communications technologies and economic development.
This project was supported by grants from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the John Fell Fund, and a British Academy Small Research Grant.