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Connecting the World 22 February 2012

Factors Forcing Down Ethiopia’s Rankings in the Digital Economy and Policy Implications Reach Final Milestone

The true effects of information and communication technologies (ICTs) on the socio-economic transformations of a country is still an under-researched theme, even more so in developing countries such as Ethiopia. The application of ICTs tools in Ethiopia is believed to be way too low, however, where ICTs have been applied there is still limited research and documentation to generate evidence and lessons for enhancing further the utilization of ICTs in the country’s development programs. This research was carried out mainly to provide a glimpse of the country’s digital lag and the way forward towards fast-tracked ascent to ICTs diffusion and adoption.

Through a combination of policy, infrastructures development, and the power of mobile solutions the divide between the high-income countries and the developing countries is narrowing where these investments are made. Despite the rising influence of mobile technologies on development programs developing countries are yet to maximize the benefits that mobile devices have presented. The digital lag that developing countries accrued over the years is threatening development efforts, therefore stepping up the diffusion and adoption of ICTs towards building an inclusive information society cannot be overdued unduly no matter how the constraints the country has been and is still under are severe.

In this study a range of factors that inhibit Ethiopia from making the required progresses in the diffusion and adoption of ICTs have been indentified and discussed, an attempt to scan the status of the digital progression of the country with respect to the parameters or indices the Economy Intelligence Unit has been using to gauge countries digital economy rankings has been made. Accordingly, a high-level roadmap towards the creation of an enabling environment for socioeconomic transformation that can go a long way in providing the country a pleasant picture in the digital economy rankings has been presented.

Here are the key findings:

  • Gaps in the existing ICTs policy have been observed in that elements such as universal broadband Internet penetration policy and mobile devices policy(given their meteoric penetration in the region as well as in the country ) are missing. Broadband is becoming more and more today’s transformation technology. To truly harness the power of ICTs towards creating a knowledge-based society and keep pace with the digitally evolving economy, a policy level commitment to expedite broadband roll-out across all parts of the country is urgently needed.
  • There has been a perceived lack of keeping the ICTs policy in tune with the technology dynamics. Given the volatility of technologies there needs to be a follow up evolution or ongoing update of the ICTs policy.
  • The Internet penetration in the country is worryingly low which stands in the way of achieving the goal of creating a knowledge-based as well as inclusive information society. Factors such as high-priced subscription fee or cost as well as web and ICTs illiteracy have exacerbated problems of lack of adequate penetration on Internet as well as ICTs use. The challenges call for a business model that targets the wide spread use of the technologies, among other things.
  • Internet services in Cyber cafés are popular, moderately used and in high demand. High-priced subscription fee or cost, connection slowness as well as unreliability have been the main hurdles to run Cyber cafés as businesses. Therefore, support at all levels(including a policy level commitment) for Cyber cafés or community-based Internet access points is urgently needed for overhauling the existing Internet penetration rate which by any standard is way too low. In this study, a functional model for Internet use tailored to Ethiopian context is proposed.
  • There is enormous challenge to get a country of Ethiopia’s size to the level of both web and ICTs literacy required for the creation of a knowledge-based society, the fact that the largest chunk of the population lack proficiency in international languages adds new dimension to the challenge. The country needs to replicate the success that it has achieved in functional literacy towards web and ICTs literacy. There has been the expedition of several successful campaigns to help the illiterate citizens able to complete real-life tasks, such as reading, writing and understand written materials and simple instructions and a similar level of commitment by the government to expedite ICTs literacy campaigns is highly required.
  • Lack of local contents is also another hurdle that stands in the way of the wider diffusion and adoption of ICTs as well as the Internet in the country. A policy that promotes the development of local content(both in local and international languages) is urgently needed, this to some extent would ease the language barrier that stand in the way of both enhanced Internet as well as ICTs penetration.
  • When gauged or scanned with respect to the parameters or indices(such as connectivity and telecommunication Infrastructure, Internet and mobile networks, business environment, social and cultural environment, legal environment, government policy and vision and consumer and business ICTs adoption) used by the Economy Intelligence Unit, the Ethiopian ICTs landscape needs grand and all round changes including the further ramp up of ICTs as well as Internet penetration rates. A high level roadmap to enhance Ethiopia’s rankings in the digital economy is suggested.
  • There has been recognition by the government on ICTs as a major enabler of social and economic changes which has been demonstrated in the five years general transformation plan of the country. The attention given to the telecom sector in the five years plan is quite promising in that it could be seen as a new dawn that can put the country in good stead in the global arena. The achievements of the major milestones set out in the five years plan would herald large scale improvements as well as expansions in telecommunication services in the country’s history which would also in the global arena help the country improve its ranking in the digital economy.

In a nutshell, there needs to be a wider policy drive to increase ICTs diffusion and adoption in the country. It is also important to recognize that access to ICTs is a necessary condition for digital inclusion or over-coming the digital divide, however access alone is insufficient to make available the range of opportunities for economic and social advance on the broadest possible basis of which ICTs are capable and which have so massively transformed business and governments. Thus, augmenting access to ICTs with effective use would ensure the realization of socioeconomic transformation that Ethiopia highly needs or craves.

The study titled “Understanding The Factors That Force Down Ethiopia’s Rankings in The Digital Economy” has reached the first milestone of the project.

Based on a set of benchmark indicators, every year a rank on countries digital economy or e-readiness is gauged and subsequently a report is released.  In the reports for many years now Ethiopia has been in the bottom pack earning a very low score on the designated benchmark indicators. Cognizant of the importance of ICT in stirring developmental programs Ethiopia has placed ICT high in the priority list. In spite of recent developments on the launch of several ICT projects, the country has an uphill to climb in terms of achieving a better level of ICT and Internet diffusions.  For Ethiopia to stand a chance of making meaningful enhancements in its rankings in the digital economy, its ICT policy needs to be geared towards fulfilling some of the benchmark indicators requirements based on the situations on the ground. However, until now a study to reveal the extent of the digital lag that the country is experiencing has not been conducted as a result not much is known about the level of Internet usage and ICT tools in general. Thus, in order to get better insights on the extent of the digital lag that can lead to policy amendments, a study on Internet usage practices, government planned, ongoing and completed ICT initiatives is underway with the support obtained from ISOC community grant program.

The first phase of the study has been completed, activities which include questionnaires design and administration, conducting key informants interviews, designing methodological framework and processing the data collected using a software tool have been carried out successfully. Preliminary results suggest that ICT and Internet penetration or density as well as the quality of service and experience in the country is very low which call for immediate action. We have entered into the next and final phase of the project, which is about analyses of the data gathered and preparing the report which would provide research inputs to policy makers needed to inform their policy decisions towards enhancing the country’s digital economy rankings.

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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