by JOHN ABDUL KARGBO
The Internet which contains untold riches of information and access to people world-wide has been launched in Sierra Leone. This article discusses the potential benefits the country stands to derive from this relatively new technology.
The growth and maturity of the Internet market in Africa is being signaled by growing international activity in the continent. Of late multinationals are moving into Africa’s Internet service. Though such developments are taking place mostly in South Africa, interest has also been shown in Uganda, Tunisia, Egypt, and Kenya. For instance, PIPEX Internet Africa – partially owned by PIPEX UK – has continued to develop its relationships with its newly found agents. So also Ixchange, a Johannesburg-based information exchange company, is implementing Mail-Ixchange, an electronic post office in the Ivory Coast.
It is apparent that the Internet is part of an on-going commercialization exercise, aimed at developing services for both businesses and private individuals. Many Africans see these moves by multinationals into their territories as ideal opportunities to bring affluent buyers and sellers together efficiently and conveniently.
In Sierra Leone, the Internet has been launched by Sierra Leone Telecommunications Limited (SIERRATEL), the country’s main telecommunications provider. Over the years, customers have complained about anomalies in the telecommunication system. Quite often, they have challenged inaccuracies in their call units, demanding printouts of calls for disputed periods in order to correct problems. Some customers have expressed dissatisfaction with the duct system and card phone installations on the streets. SIERRATEL, in an attempt to improve the company’s image and customers’ satisfaction, launched its Internet service by declaring July 26, 1996 as The Internet Day in Sierra Leone. Presently, customers can only transmit messages or images by means of fax or telex, time-consuming and expensive options if large documents need to be transmitted.
The Internet – relatively a new technology for Sierra Leone – is perceived as being faster and cheaper compared to the conventional fax or telex. According to SIERRATEL management, the Internet facilities will be developed in two systems. The first system will be a local area network in which subscribers can hook onto the Internet, to communicate and disseminate information within institutions such as the university, hospitals, and the private sector. The second system will provide a gateway outside of Sierra Leone to the Internet’s international community whereby subscribers can communicate with others world-wide.
Sierra Leone is only emerging from a civil war. There is the problem of appropriate balance of available resources devoted to immediate critical human needs such as food, health, shelter, and basic literacy compared to the resources required for the Internet. Given this situation and the importance of the Internet, what does the country stand to benefit from utilizing this technology?
To decide and not to decide the benefits the country shall derive from the information superhighway are essentially decisions in diversity. Most countries of the developing world see this new technology rather more of a bypass. Poorer countries in sub-Saharan Africa, of which Sierra Leone is no exception, have seen only a few benefits of this global communication. But the crux of the matter is that most of these countries lack sustainable growth.
Indeed the benefits the country stands to derive from the introduction of the Internet can no longer be second guessed. The Internet could prove as useful to Sierra Leone as it is in the more developed countries. It could help change Sierra Leone society. In communications, the citizens of Sierra Leone could be provided with a faster and more reliable means of contacting each other to exchange news and views as well as receiving updates on rapidly changing political, social, economic, and environmental events. It could provide a very useful means by which aid organizations such as CAUSE Canada, CARE, ACTION AID and peace-keeping forces, like the West African Community Monitoring Force (ECEMOG), would keep in touch with their colleagues outside Sierra Leone.
The Internet could become a key part of research and development in the community. Journalists, for instance, would use the Internet to cover topics in the computer industry; some could even conduct interviews electronically. Medical researchers could share information on widespread diseases, such as polio, AIDS, lasser fever, tuberculosis, and leprosy, to name a few.
The current state of the library system in the country calls for significant use of information resources on the Internet. With the few exceptions of libraries operated by the British Council and the United States Information Service, the financial base of most libraries in the country is weak. Funds allocated to most libraries in Sierra Leone are small and do not keep pace with the inflation of book and journal prices. The economic situation of libraries has led to a considerable deterioration of services offered, and forced libraries to rely heavily on donors like Book Aid International, African Book Collective, and the World Bank Book Project. Unfortunately, most donations are not only irrelevant to the needs of the clientele but are also not made on a regular basis. With the introduction of the Internet, people in library and information work could find the Internet useful since it could:
- enable them to retrieve useful copies of reports, public domain software, or shareware,
- search online catalogues of hundreds of libraries around the world,
- gain access to multi-purpose interactive bulletin board systems,
- participate in on-going professional and topical discussions via electronic mail,
- communicate with network users worldwide, and
- allow librarians and information scientists who studied abroad to keep in touch with their universities, colleges, professional associations, and colleagues.
But the use of the Internet in business is perhaps what will be of more relevance to Sierra Leone. Those in the business world could use the Internet to make sales and promote their products. Large industries and corporations such as the Sierra Leone Brewery, the National Confectionery Company, the Aureol Tobacco Company, the Sierra Leone Road Transport Corporation, and local insurance companies would be able to advertise on the Internet. Because of this advertising space on the Internet, customers will be able to consult online catalogues of suppliers. They can also place orders for items of their choice electronically. The ultimate result is that the Internet could enable them to gain timely and significant insight into overall market trends and competitive pressures so as to increase their overall business contacts.The Internet has the potential to promote arts and culture in the country by disseminating information about entertainment events such as sports, football matches, cinema, theater, and even dances. It will make it possible for visitors and users to look on screen for necessary information about week-end entertainment opportunities. It will enable Internet users to buy tickets for any event from the comfort of home or office.
Of particular relevance to Sierra Leone, the Internet can facilitate education and training. Owing to the lack of indigenous publishing and book distribution agencies, information materials are imported and paid for in “hard currency.” When available, the Leone (local currency) equivalent is paid thereby making the cost of materials very high. The Internet could be of tremendous assistance – if not relief – to this problem since Internet users could use the Internet to access information normally difficult to secure by any other means.
In research and teaching, especially at the tertiary level, most of relevant materials are lacking. Often university professors and lecturers have to make do with a single up-to-date text in their respective disciplines. With the Internet, it will be possible to get relevant materials for students on a daily basis. Students no longer will have to turn in their lecture notes for reuse to their lecturers during examinations.
In labor, the Internet could be a promising tool for employee recruiting. In Sierra Leone, the Labor Congress and the Public Service Commission (PSC) play a major part in recruiting personnel for the civil service and general labor force. Employment procedures involve collecting gazette advertisements and taking passport-size photographs for labor membership cards. All these efforts are costly and waste time and effort. With the Internet, jobs could be advertised electronically, avoiding some of the traditional costs and middlemen. Companies, big and small, could look not only for customers but also a labor force across the nation as well as overseas.
Indeed the Sierra Leonean community will benefit from this new technology. Though the Internet will be very beneficial, it is a long way from being fully implemented at present, with several roadblocks still in the way. Funding for the development of the Internet by SIERRATEL still requires urgent attention by the SIERRATEL’s management. In his keynote address during the launching ceremony, the Managing Director of SIERRATEL noted that “the Company has limited resources and they have to date not received any funding from external agencies. It is from the resources collected from telephone, facsimile, telex, and some few special services such as leased and direct lines offered that they have sponsored all their programs.” Considering the tremendous costs involved in making the Internet possible in Sierra Leone, there must be a basic financial commitment to the project in order to make it sustainable.
Most importantly, the success of the Internet program depends on having a group of enthusiastic users. Since the Internet is a relatively new technology in the country, there are not a large number of experienced Internet users. To date, those identified for participation in this new network are quite small group. Until a sufficiently large user group is established, the success of the program will remain doubtful.
Related to developing a user base is the sheer cost of using the Internet. To participate, one needs a computer with telecommunications software, a modem, and access to a reliable phone line or Internet connection. Hardware and software are costly considering the rate of exchange for the local currency (Leone) to the dollar or pound sterling. It is no hidden fact that most organizations and institutions in Sierra Leone operate on tight budgets and cannot tolerate the costs of the Internet even if the desire to use the Internet is there.
There are considerable costs for training users as well as for technicians to ensure that the network is reliable and easy to use. It is critical that these economic factors have to be considered at each stage of planning and implementation.
Human resources development and training of personnel are vital issues. Expertise will be needed to run the system. It is essential then that relevant target groups and appropriate individuals be identified for training. This training should include a broad overview of the functionality of the technology before delving into its usage. Seminars and hands-on demonstrations during installation are essential. Such training should also be continuous. Since SIERRATEL management has only limited resources, it is hoped that management has considered all of these factors for sustaining the Internet on day-to-day basis.
It would be useful if there existed a comprehensive record or database of institutions, organizations, and personnel interested in the Internet in Sierra Leone. SIERRATEL should embark on compiling a list of interested customers for their Internet services. With this information, SIERRATEL would then know its potential customer base for digital services.
The unreliability of power supply in the country creates potential difficulties for the success of the Internet. At present, the country cannot boast of a dependable power supply. Blackouts are frequent, and some provincial parts of the country lack access to the power grid altogether. If the Internet will work for the entire country, the situation calls for an improvement in the services of the nation’s power service. Without additional generators and infrastructure, portions of the country will be left out of this telecommunications advance.
Leadership and participation need to be considered at various levels of the project from planning through implementation. There must be a basic commitment on the part of SIERRATEL management in order to make the project work. Bureaucratic tendencies must be subsumed. Leadership should be vibrant and committed with clearly defined functions that would address critical issues like ownership, access, training, pricing, and regulations. Only through committed leadership will the new technology be successfully implemented and sustained.
With the launching of the Internet in Sierra Leone last year, the country is gradually joining the “information technology bandwagon.” This is done with the sole aim of using the Internet as the means to improve communications both within the country and internationally. But the successful implementation of the Internet will require a shift in resource allocations in the country and require the SIERRATEL management to provide outspoken and dynamic leadership to implement and sustain the network.
John Abdul Kargbo is in the Institute of Library, Archives, and Information Studies at the University of Sierra Leone. Mail can be sent to him at the Institute, Private Mail Bag, Freetown, Sierra Leone.