Judging from this, policy makers from parts of the region have reacted to Connect Africa – but what of the view from the industry? In a survey commissioned by Informa Telecoms & Media in June 2011, two-thirds of the respondents felt that e-government services remained undeveloped in Africa. In the same survey, two thirds of the respondents said they believe that education and payments are the most important potential services that could benefit from a state’s e-government policy. This is interesting as it suggests C-level executives feel that governments should not only use e-services to benefit their citizens (education/training), but could also use ICT to transform the government’s own internal processes (payment of public sector staff) by creating greater efficiencies.
When looking at e-government strategies in Africa, something is particularly striking: there is no clear articulation of the potential role that mobile devices can play in the spread of e-government services. Given the role that mobile has played in the African economy and culture in the last decade, this is strange.
The mobile revolution has brought communications to hundreds of millions of people across Africa within a short period of time. At the end of 2001, there were just 25.6 million mobile subscriptions across the whole of Africa, representing three per cent penetration. Informa projects that by the end of this year – ten years later – there will be 640 million subscriptions across the continent and SIM penetration will be close to 60 per cent. Strange then for policy strategists to overlook mobile as a tool in building greater engagement with citizens and for governments not to benefit from potential efficiencies that mobile government can create. Is building a strategy around e-government (while excluding mobile government) sustainable when, according to figures released by Informa, household broadband penetration in Africa is just 3 per cent and is projected to grow to 8 per cent by the end of 2016? Governments and businesses are learning to accept that consumers expect an anywhere, anytime service. The emergence of wireless technologies and development of mobile applications in Africa means this anywhere, anytime expectation has become an African reality too.
The implementation of e-government can create a greater visibility to the government citizen relationship and allow governments to become more efficient and effective in fulfilling their service-delivery functions. This is the reason for the focus of one of Africa Connect’s goals being around e-government.
So what of mobile government? In many countries such as Estonia, Germany, Singapore and Hong Kong, it has become a key element of e-government through its “utilisation of wireless and mobile technology, services, applications and devices for improving benefits to citizens, businesses and government units” (Ibrahim Kuschchu of Mobile Government Consortium International, 2003).
It is easy to suggest that the move from e-government to m-government is inevitable, but this is especially the case in Africa, where the number of people with access to mobile phones is growing, and exceeds the number of citizens with access to the internet by nearly five to one. This is particularly the case in rural areas of Africa, suggesting the need for mobile government is even greater for approximately 60 per cent of the continent’s population.
The beneficiaries of mobile government can be classified as governments, citizens and businesses: Government departments (G2G): Applications and services can improve organisational and business processes, such as making in-field mobile workers more productive, encouraging the use of videoconferencing or providing secure co-partner services with other agencies (e.g., NGOs).
The single most effective communications tool for stimulating the greatest demand and supply of public services in Africa is probably the radio. Its reach is wide, it delivers content in local languages, it provides information to the illiterate, it requires only small amounts of electricity and people recognise it as a traditional and trusted supplier of public information. But radio as an instrument of government information and services has its limitations: The key to e-governance is a two-way communication between citizen and government, or business and government. Other requirements for effective e-governance include accessibility to a wide audience and the need for content to be accessible over a wide range of formats. The mobile device meets these requirements: it allows for speedy interaction; access to mobile telephony has become ubiquitous in many of the continent’s markets; and the use of SMS, USSD and IVR gives the mobile phone the edge over the PC as a public service delivery vehicle.
It is instructive too to look at Informa’s projected shift of internet traffic. While fixed internet traffic exceeds that of mobile internet, the gap is reducing markedly in Africa, so much so that, by 2015, Informa projects that 18 per cent of its internet traffic will be carried by cellular networks compared with a global figure of just 3 per cent. The fact that mobile networks will be able to host higher bandwidth-intensive services over the course of this forecast period helps to explain this transformation.
Messaging services and other non-voice services are already popular with consumers as the mobile device becomes a central platform for greater interaction, service delivery and internet access. This will continue to be encouraged by mobile operators as non-voice services are a way of offsetting the decline in their voice-based revenue. The success of mobile government will depend on the willingness of consumers to conduct more messaging, browse the internet with a portable device more regularly and access utility services with greater frequency. The limited functionality of entry-level handsets is an inhibitor to the potential of mobile government services. However, the smartphone market is set to grow in Africa too. According to projections from Informa, over a third of mobile connections in South Africa will be via smartphones by the end of 2016, and this figure will be in excess of 15 per cent in Egypt, Kenya and Nigeria. This provides far greater flexibility to what can be achieved by mobile government.