Global ICT Forum in Africa: South Africa Hosts World Telecom ConferenceMary-Jean Nleya
International ICT Conference in Africa: South Africa Hosts Global Tech Conference
ICT Conference commences on African soil
The 2018 ITU Telecom World Conference officially kicked off in Durban on Monday, 10 September 2018 until Thursday, 13 September 2018. The conference was an annual occasion organized by the host country and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a United Nations specialized agency for Information Telecommunications Technologies (ICTs). This year the conference was hosted by the South African Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services, in South Africa – making it the first time the global tech conference was hosted on the African continent. According to the event’s website, South Africa served as the ideal host because of “South Africa’s flagship initiatives to support ICT and SME [Small and Medium/Micro-sized Enterprises] development throughout both the country and the continent.”
The global technology conference was formally opened by the South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and the ITU Secretary-General, Houlin Zhao, on Monday, 10 September 2018. The event was attended by over 5,000 delegates, some of whom included: heads of state, government ministers, those in the private sector, tech companies, regulators, academics and others.
The context in which the ICT conference takes place: The digital divide
The esteemed ITU Telecom Conference, in Durban, takes place at a time where digital progress is ever advancing, while the digital divide also widens. The question that comes to the fore, is what conversations and debates were had at the much-anticipated telecom world conference that will present positive outcomes on curbing the digital divide and the inequalities that arise as a result of the fourth industrial revolution both on the continent and the world?
Earlier on in August 2018, South Africa’s Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services, Siyabonga Cwele highlighted the following point – during an interview – concerning the conference: “It is not just a conference for the ‘high’ people; but it is a conference that should benefit the ordinary and the poor people in the country.”
During the conference itself, President Ramaphosa’s opening remarks asserted that ICTs should be used to address “the world’s greatest development challenges”. He also added that the conference would be a unique platform for inclusivity. The international event included technical discussions on issues relating to the telecommunications sector, such as: “New trends in spectrum management”; “AI, telcos and intelligent networks”; “TDD Spectrum and 5G Technology Workshop”.
Rhetoric versus noticeable action
To ensure that the conference was not merely a place for rhetoric, two noteworthy elements were reportedly added to the conference:
- Firstly, a number of small businesses were sponsored to attend the conference because one of the visions of the meeting was to provide small businesses, also known as SMMEs (Small, Medium and Micro-sized Enterprises), with a platform to showcase their own innovations on the world stage.
- Secondly, a new centre, with the support of the ITU, was said to be launched, at the ITU conference in Durban, called The African Digital Transformation Centre. The Centre will seek to be a site where innovation will be supported in the form of research, funding and partnerships between small businesses and the more established industry leaders.
South Africa, which was reported to have dipped into a recession on 6 September 2018, aimed to use the international conference and its platform to attract investment. South Africa’s Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services, Siyabonga Cwele said during an interview, in August, that the conference “gives [South Africa] an opportunity to showcase the [country’s] own innovation and technological development”. Cwele highlighted in the same interview that it is important that such an international conference is hosted in Africa as it will ensure that Africa “is not left behind in the digital economy, but should be competitive”.
A number of other vital issues that go in tandem with ICTs were discussed at the conference, such as issues of youth and women empowerment, cybersecurity, unemployment and others.
Telecom conference ends but conversations continue
As the 2018 Telecom World Conference draws to a close, it is imperative that the conversations continue coupled with positive and implementable strides. Some of the on-the-ground challenges associated with ICTs, particularly ICTs’ incorporation in education, were raised during a grassroots reporting documentary case-study in November 2017. The documentary case-study looked at a developing country’s context, namely Malawi, and it explored whether ICTs are adequately being integrated into the public-school system and the challenges and opportunities experienced therein.
When filming the documentary, it was found that developing country-contexts (particularly those in Africa) face impediments to achieving the feat of technology leap-frogging because there are barriers to entry in adopting and rolling out ICTs, especially in public schools.
Such barriers to entry include:
- The affordability of technologies in public school settings;
- Access to continued electricity – given the extensive power cuts in some African countries (and the expense of using generators);
- Qualified teachers and training of instructors who will make adequate use of the ICTs;
- Cultural shifts and practices;
- Lack of funding to adequately maintain and service such technologies if in use;
- High costs of internet use/ data and slow internet.
These “barriers to entry” and impediments to adopting ICTs prohibits some in society from being sufficiently equipped to meaningfully participate in the fourth industrial revolution. Thereby resulting in the gap widening between those who have the opportunity to “jump on the bandwagon” of technological progress and those who are unable to do so.
This is a rapidly advancing and technologically-driven global village and such conferences are vital as spaces of discussion and sharing of best practices. The information shared in such spaces, however, have to be relevant, and should practically and effectively address the concerns and challenges faced by those on-the-ground.