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Surfin' Safari

The Internet Is Making Inroads in Africa, the World's Least-Wired Continent


SOWETO, South Africa — Under the watchful eyes of Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft Corp. and cyberspace supremo, the information superhighway got a new load of unlikely passengers on a recent rainy afternoon here.

Twenty young students played educational games on 20 donated top-of-the-line computers at the Chiawelo Community Center, the first Internet-linked computer center for the public in a township where most homes still lack phones, not to mention indoor plumbing.

Gates beamed when 13-year-old Gift Ndlozi told him his career goal: "When I grow up, I want to be a computer scientist." The youth later confessed that he'd never heard of Bill Gates.

It may be small, but the opening of the Soweto Digital Center--underwritten in part by Microsoft--highlighted the growing inroads that the Internet, and the global information revolution it represents, are finally making on the world's poorest and least-wired continent.

"When we started our Web site 2 1/2 years ago, the only place you could access the World Wide Web was South Africa, Tunisia and Egypt," said Reed Kramer, head of Africa News Service, an electronic distribution network for news organizations in 15 African nations. "Now there are 18 or so countries."

And more are coming online. The U.S. Agency for International Development has begun a five-year, $15-million program to expand full Internet connections and capabilities to as many as 20 African nations. The program is named for the late U.S. Rep. Mickey Leland (D-Texas), who died in a plane crash while en route to a refugee camp in Ethiopia in 1989.

Under the Leland Initiative, aid agreements have been signed in the last six months with some of Africa's poorest nations, including Benin, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, the Ivory Coast, Mali, Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique and Rwanda.

Those nations agreed to abandon high international telephone charges for cost-based tariffs, to allow free and open access to information on the Internet and to end long-standing monopoly practices in favor of private-sector Internet service providers.


In exchange, USAID agreed to provide technical advice, training, equipment, business plans and other assistance. Additional agreements are expected this year in Eritrea and Kenya.

U.S. officials say the goal of the program is to provide low-cost, high-speed paths for information so African governments, universities, businesses and others can better manage and plan long-term development in such crucial areas as the economy, the environment and education.

"Through this technology, a rural health worker in Ghana can communicate test results to research labs in another country," Vice President Al Gore explained when he launched the program last June. "A Ugandan Chamber of Commerce official can share information on tourism with prospective visitors on other continents. A teacher in Kenya can exchange class plans with instructors in Asia. Electoral commissions in Malawi can brainstorm with counterparts developing democracy in Mongolia."


A variety of private companies are also taking the initiative in the effort to wire Africa. Africa Online, now a division of Prodigy Information Services, provides Internet access to about 3,000 customers in Kenya, the Ivory Coast and Ghana and has plans to expand into South Africa and Egypt later this year.

The service, launched in 1990 by three Kenyan expatriates studying at Harvard and MIT, was initially conceived as a way to provide efficient communications between Africans at home and abroad. It's become a commercial success despite difficulties in getting crucial leased telephone lines from government-owned phone companies, who see the Internet as a threat to their lucrative monopolies.

The vast majority of Africa Online's subscribers within the continent are small and medium-size business that use e-mail as an alternative to the expensive and unreliable public phone network. One Africa Online customer in Kenya has established an electronic general store on the World Wide Web, while another uses it to fill rush orders for European florists.

Competition is mounting: In the last month alone, four Internet service providers started by African natives have set up shop in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. Africa Online says it's seeing subscription growth of 20% a month.

It isn't hard to see what's driving the demand for Internet access in Africa. Reliable communication networks barely exist on much of the continent. Telephone lines frequently crackle with static, have multiple voices speaking or simply go dead. In Zaire, the continent's third-largest nation, few land-line phones work at all. With special leased lines or satellite connections, the Internet can bypass all of that.

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