Sub-Saharan Africa has traditionally been characterised by stark barriers to telecommunication and flows of information. Rates for long distance phone calls throughout Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) used to be some of the highest in the world, and Internet costs and speeds similarly were out of the reach of all but the most privileged citizens. However, in the last few years, there have been radical changes to SSA’s international connectivity. Fibre-optic cables have been laid throughout the continent and there are now almost one hundred million Internet users and over seven hundred million mobile users in the region.
This rapid transformation in the region’s connectivity has encouraged politicians, journalists, academics, and citizens to speak of an ICT-fuelled economic revolution happening on the continent. Many see the potential for SSA to move away from reliance on agriculture and extractive industries and towards a focus on the quaternary and quinary sectors (in other words, the knowledge-based parts of the economy). However, while much research has been conducted into the impacts of ICTs on older economic processes and practices, there remains surprisingly little research into the emergence of a new informationalised economy in Africa. As such, it is precisely now that we urgently need groundbreaking frontier research to understand precisely what impacts are observable, who benefits, and how these changes match up to our expectations for change. We need to ask if we are seeing a new era of development on the continent fuelled by ICTs, or whether Sub- Saharan Africa’s engagement with the global knowledge economy continues to be on terms that reinforce dependence, underdevelopment, and economic extraversion.
This research project is designed to tackle this broad line of inquiry by focusing on the geographies, drivers, and effects of Sub-Saharan Africa’s emerging information economies at this important moment of change. We do so by focusing on three key research contexts: the economic geographies of knowledge production and digital participation from SSA; outsourcing and bottom-of-the-pyramid labour; and the creative service sector. Using a mixed-methods approach, we will document the challenges and the unanticipated and innovative uses resulting from this changing connectivity. A range of contemporary discourses about the benefits of SSA’s changing connectivity can be compared with the material effects that ICTs are having, thus allowing us to cut through the hype and empirically evaluate the benefits and impacts of of new communication technologies in Africa. This project will contribute not only to academic and policy debates surrounding the economic benefits of connectivity and Internet access, but will also provide a robust evidence base crucial in shaping future rounds of ICT related development projects in low-income countries.
This project is supported by an ERC Starting Grant.
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