Developing countries hunger for connectivity to boost their economies and welfare

People holding up smartphones (© AP Images)
(© AP Images)

Enter William Kamkwamba. With basic engineering skills he taught himself, largely by frequenting a village library in Malawi, he built the electricity-producing windmill using available materials — wood, bicycle parts and materials collected from a local scrapyard.

Building with windmill made of poles and sheets of metal (Courtesy of Erik (HASH) Hersman)
Kamkwamba’s first windmill (Courtesy of Erik (HASH) Hersman)

After finishing the turbine, Kamkwamba built other machines. His innovation skills improved as he discovered a new source of inspiration: “Everything I needed to learn had been hidden in the Internet the whole time,” he says in a TED blog.

Once he was online he built, with little help from outsiders, six classrooms for the local primary school. Then he equipped them with laptops, installed a converter to turn cow dung into cooking gas, and deployed a local computer network. Kamkwamba was able to improve life for himself and his village because he could access the Internet.

But, as Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, says, “Parts of the world risk missing out on economic growth because of their lack of broadband infrastructure.”

The big picture

There are 4.4 billion people without access to the Internet, and there could be millions of Kamkwambas among them. New computer networks can improve the lives of the poor in some parts of the world. “Internet access … helps people to help themselves,” says Kosta Grammatis of A Human Right, a nonprofit that advocates universal access.

Access brings changes beyond local innovation. The worldwide computer network and Internet-based digital applications offer opportunities for collaboration and commerce. The Internet accelerates economic growth by revolutionizing manufacturing, agriculture, education, health care and government services.

Person in front of screen displaying other people and names (© AP Images)
An online classroom at Harvard University allows real-time interaction between professors and students from around the world. (© AP Images)

The World Bank estimates that for every 10 percent increase in high-speed Internet connections, a country’s gross domestic product rises approximately by 1.4 percent. The Internet is as fundamental to economic development as ports, roads or an electric grid, experts say.

Hand holding smartphone by window showing field (© AP Images)
Mobile Internet is changing agriculture. (© AP Images)

Catalyst for change

To speed up Internet-adoption in the developing world, the U.S. Department of State launched the Global Connect Initiative, an effort to bring at least 1.5 billion additional people online by 2020 through partnerships among governments, the private sector and nongovernmental organizations. Since the initiative’s 2015 launch, international support for it has grown.

On April 14, the U.S. Department of State and the World Bank are bringing together in Washington finance ministers from many partner countries and presidents of multilateral development banks to discuss how to further the initiative. A day earlier, the World Bank and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers are holding a workshop on technical, regulatory and other issues related to the initiative.

Of course, Internet connectivity can’t substitute for necessities such as clean water, food, health care and education. But it can accelerate and lower the cost of the delivery of related services. In fact, access to digital technology underpins every other of the 2015 U.N. Global Goals for Sustainable Development.

The Internet makes economies more efficient in many ways. For example, digital tax and duty payment systems facilitate trade and reduce the risk of fraud and corruption. One such system was launched in Afghanistan in 2015 with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Woman with umbrella in field (© AP Images)
Will it rain or will the sun shine? An online weather report will tell her. (© AP Images)

In most developing countries, agriculture represents a large portion of the economy. Mobile telephony and the Internet can connect farmers to the marketplace and give them access to weather forecasts or disease and pest-control advisories. In India, farmers and fishermen tracking weather conditions and comparing wholesale prices through mobile phones increased their profits by 8 percent, according to a 2014 report by Deloitte, an auditing and consulting company.

The Internet breaks many barriers for entrepreneurs and small-business owners, broadening their access to resources and bringing them closer to the marketplace, wherever they live. In Belgrade, Serbia, an Internet-based tech hub/business incubator supported by USAID helps tech entrepreneurs hone their business skills and develop their startups.

Person on mobile phone sitting on cycle rickshaw beside stove (© AP Images)
Have you lined up customers for me? Social media and Web pages can boost sales. (© AP Images)

Internet access doesn’t ensure that users reap all of its benefits immediately. But nations can use a lag between investment in digital infrastructure and significant returns to boost computer literacy, affordability, security and privacy.

Eventually, digital connectivity gives developing countries an opportunity to leapfrog developed countries in areas such as mobile banking, according to the Deloitte report. African entrepreneurs who have recently built successful Internet-related companies can vouch for this.

One, Jason Njoku, started iROKOtv, the world’s largest digital distributor of African movies, and SPARK, a startup fund. Njoku said new wealth generated in Nigeria will disrupt the traditional economy.

“We know that millions of Nigerians will be coming online and becoming more and more dependent on the Internet as a crucial part of their everyday lives,” he told the news site Africa Strictly Business.

Person showing tablet (Courtesy of Wayan Vota/Flickr)
Vérone Mankou of Congo designed the first African tablet. (Courtesy of Wayan Vota/Flickr)