Developed economies have for some time now rearranged their economies on the basis of the concept of the knowledge economy. As indicated in a Human Sciences Research Council report in South Africa, “Knowledge-based economies have the potential to stimulate economic growth, provide higher wages and greater employment opportunities, as well as enhance a country’s competitiveness within the global environment.”
But the picture for the emerging world is quite different. The World Bank’s Knowledge Economic Index reveals that Africa scores just a third of the ratings of North America and half the levels for East Asia and the Pacific.
This is clear when one considers comparative labour statistics: according to NationMaster, whereas strong economies like Germany, Sweden and South Korea have a predominance of services sector employment (an area typical of a knowledge economy), in a state like Rwanda agriculture completely predominates with 90% of the population involved in agriculture, largely subsistence in nature.
The lack of infrastructure in many African countries is a major reason for the failure of African states to move into the knowledge economy at the same rate. In some parts of the continent, a lack of political will has also hampered progress.
“Lack of infrastructure is seen most notably in rural areas,” explains social entrepreneur, Dr Vanu Bose, the CEO of Vanu Inc. “With the enormous expanse of land on the continent, the cost of rolling out cables and masts in the countryside did not make financial sense in the past. These areas do not have the density of population one finds in urban environments and, being largely subsistence farmers, access to money is limited, so the costs to access mobile connectivity services for both data and voice have made it prohibitive for people to use.”
Energy supplies needed to run cell sites are a further consideration. Most of the world’s unconnected people live in places where traditional power sources are scarce.
Those who remain unconnected make up as much as 40% of the world’s population – in actual numbers that equates to 3 billion. “These are people who lack the means to participate in today’s global economy. The link between this and the inability to move out of poverty is clear: without the ability to use the internet for educational purposes or to access employment opportunities, and so on, a person is far more likely to continue with the economic activity learned from generations beforehand,” Bose explains.
Dr Bose is a leading figure in The Next Three Billion project, an initiative to bring the entire world population online. “Our focus in this project is to find ways of overcoming the factors that hinder the rollout of connectivity in rural environments,” he says. “And we are now finding ways of dealing with the issues. We can now truly look to a future in which connectivity will become an insignificant issue throughout the world.”
In the case of Vanu Inc., both technical and business innovation are paving the way for the spread of connectivity in places where people have never beforehand used the internet or spoken on a mobile phone. Firstly, energy needs are being met through solar technology that delivers 90W of power, enough to power the small-cell sites that the company has developed. These are placed in rural spots identified as places where people live, work and commute. As for the operating costs, all service-providers in a particular country share the infrastructure put in by Vanu – rather than installing their own – and so operating costs are lowered.
The Vanu model is currently being rolled out to 376 sites in rural Rwanda, connecting 1 million Rwandans for the first time. “The political will to push Rwanda into taking top spot in Africa for both voice and data connectivity has played a major role in allowing this to happen,” says Bose.
Vanu is also looking at other markets in Africa, including Sierra Leone and Ghana, as well as in India and rural parts of the United States. These initiatives will create the opportunity for many more people to benefit from participating in the world’s knowledge economy.