The 1960s witnessed the advent of information technology in Ethiopia, when the mainframe computers were introduced for the first time in Africa. Despite being installed in the important sectors of military, defense, finance, telecom, electricity & power, and railways, the mainframes had no interactive boundaries within the sector.
Later, microcomputers spread widely in the country either by direct purchase or through donor development aid. Like its predecessor, the initial use of microcomputers was characterized by inadequate literacy and patchy understanding of the technology by potential users.
A centralized approach to building information and communication technologies in Ethiopia was first proposed by donor agencies such as UNESCO and IDRC as soon as microcomputers were introduced to the county. In 1986 national computing and information center was also established. However, the intended goals were not realized by the centre due to high control by the military government of the time, inadequate resources, high turnover, shortage of skilled manpower and insufficient knowledge of information technology by decision makers.
After the change of government in 1991 the efforts were resumed with regard to promoting the awareness and growth of computers. A survey carried out in response to a study on national informatics policy in Ethiopia in 1993 covering 81 major institutions reports 1550 microcomputers, 38 mini computers and 8 mainframe computers. 25% of these machines were owned by international organizations and aid agencies. By the end of 1998, extensive growth in computers in business, academic institutions and households were seen raising the figure to an estimated 15,000 microcomputers.
Awareness of the effect of information technology has been growing among users in the field of research, those working for international organizations and those in business. All of which has encouraged the IT sector in the country – proliferation of private companies that provide value added services in information technology, training centers and the establishment of a computer science unit at Addis Ababa University, efforts towards standardizing Ethiopic software, etc.
Public access links were introduced in 1990 and the first Internet connection was established by the Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporations (ETC) in October 1996 with a T1 connection to the United States. Currently there are over 2500 Internet users but the quality of service leaves much to be desired.
Recent move of the government towards increasing the bandwidth to 1Mb line, privatization of energy and telecommunication sector could open further opportunities for growth in information and communication sector. However, surveys show as much as 83% of the capacity of a PC is often underutilized and the quality of services offered is often poor.
Challenges to the Growth of Information Technology in Ethiopia
Full adaptation of the technology has been difficult due to:
§ Lack of national guidelines and consistent information and communication policy
§ Lack of academic institutions that act as sources of well-grounded study in information technology
§ Non-existent computer literacy in primary and secondary education
§ A weak education infrastructure
§ Shortage of skilled human resources and computing infrastructure colleges and universities
§ The School of Information Studies for Africa (SISA) that was to become a center of excellence in new techniques of information systems development for Africa has limited intake of students – degrees for less than fifteen African students per- due to its heavy reliance on donor funding and lack of vision.
§ Shortage of programmers in custom and new systems development
§ Poor quality of internet services
§ A restrictive information seeking culture
§ Limited access to software and training materials
§ Diverse local languages, scripts and dialects in Ethiopia – user friendly interface in the local languages for on-line connectivity is needed in promoting information sharing and developing a successful national network in Ethiopia
The Role of International Organizations and Development Aid Agencies
The international organizations and aid agencies have played a significant role in information technology diffusion in the country. Their existence has helped create opportunities for demonstrations of key information technology, transfer of ideas, sponsoring structural development projects and a potential market segment for emerging small and medium enterprises in the field. The number of international organizations recognizing the importance of information technology for the development of local capacity has been increasing.
Potential Benefits of Information Technology in Ethiopia
Efficient communications for manufacturing, service and tourism sector
Fast response to natural disasters and effective rural health and family planning services
Effective governance and administrative effectiveness
Efficient education, research and communication of research results
Access to global market and research information
Employment opportunities for small and medium enterprises
Effective and enhanced data and information gathering and distribution for better planning
Enhanced national cohesion and integration of heterogeneous social composition or geographical dispersal
Core ICT Application Areas for Development in Ethiopia
To attain the benefits mentioned above, Ethiopia should define areas of outmost strategic importance that should be put in place for continued economic development. This would include those areas that:
Promote food security (food chain information systems, agricultural information systems and networks, etc.)
Help in overall poverty reduction enhancing quality and quantity of education and health (basic education and health care information systems, telemedicine and healthcare networks)
Build the necessary human capital (school, university and research networks)
Facilitate general economic activity (statistical information systems, geographic information systems, judicial and administration systems such as inland revenue, municipalities activities, land registry information systems and networks)
Improve financial market and the development of private sector (property, land and business registry systems and networks, payment clearance and financial institutions oversight systems);
Improve trade and global competitiveness (trade information systems, customs and clearance systems, business promotion information systems and networks)
Improve the delivery of infrastructure and social services (transport, communication, utilities management information systems and networks)
Support the management of macroeconomic planning and project implementation at national level (planning, budgeting, monitoring, tax administration, expenditure management system both at national and federal states level).
Assist in the preservation of the environment (regional planning, environment monitoring, early warning information systems, etc.)
Encourage the tourism sector (promotional and cultural information systems) and
Provide conditions for popular participation (community centers, information systems between various regions).
Ethiopia should develop a National Information Infrastructure (NII) plan that covers the above mentioned areas of strategic information systems and networks backed by efficient telecommunication networks and people that implement it.
The NII plan should encompass connectivity (built on robust and low cost technology), content (mainly strategic information systems), infrastructure (human, energy, telecommunications, and social) and enabling policy for private sector investment and participation.
Ethiopia should not leave ICT as sector for commercial interest or free market and privatization as such but rather regard them as part of the general public interest, participation, use and debate.
With the growing population pressures, the policy on rural economic development requires considerable investment and attention to ICT to achieve sustainable growth in the long term.
The application of information and communication technology does not just encompass technology hardware, radios, computers, telephones and software and the content or data, but also needs organization, incentives, procedures and people
The ability to participate in information and communication technologies requires participation, partnership, understanding of social implication of new technologies and management of changes at national level.
Furthermore, democratization of access to ICT to the 90 percent of rural and sub-urban disadvantaged communities is also crucial. But it requires considerable resources.
Some of the key steps for democratization of access to ICT that remain as a principle to Acacia initiative and crucial for Ethiopia include:
Promoting applications and services that respond to communities’ needs (e.g. enhancing the delivery of education, distribution of health and agricultural information, and other applications)
Fostering it and telecom policies which are hospitable to ICT access in rural and small town communities (e.g. changes in pricing policies, regulatory frameworks, the delivery of public information, and promotion of universal service/universal access);
Supporting human capacity and innovative infrastructure that extends communication networks to rural and small town communities (e.g. radio, satellite, cellular phone-computer linkages);
Encouraging the development of tools and technologies that facilitate ICT use by the marginalized groups including the disabled and illiterate (e.g. graphic, touch-screen or language interfaces); and,
Developing, organizing and dissemination of content in structured and non-structured format through a variety of media to be accessed and advanced by communities.
Besides meeting the general needs of the rural areas the National Information Infrastructure should take overall national strategy for development into consideration. The NII plan should also be built on existent tools and infrastructure that underpin the current economic activity and new tools and technologies that must be put in place to sustain emerging economic activity.
For more information about INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY GROWTH IN ETHIOPIA visit: http://www.eitpa.org/