Drawing the first conclusions already

Interview with Amadou Top, by Olivier Barlet

Osiris - Dakar
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Looking at the advances of the internet in a country which is banking on the new technologies with the director of the Observatoire sur les Systèmes d’Information, les Réseaux et les Inforoutes au Sénégal (OSIRIS).

How does Osiris work?
The association groups together a lot of people from different horizons who have undertaken to try to understand the impact of the new technologies on our societies, particularly Senegalese society, and also to study the means of using them in our contexts. Osiris also works to develop these technologies in different sectors, not just in the well-off districts, but also in the working-class neigbourhoods, amongst young people and women.
So it has quite a social angle.
Yes, but with a desire to study the impact too. These technologies are going to induce quite profound changes, much more so than television, radio, or other forms of communication. We think it judicious to look concretely at how our society can cope with this change.
It is striking that you are already in a process of evaluating a phenomena which has only just started!
It is precisely because this phenomenon has accelerated so that three to four years already represents a sufficient trial period to make an evaluation. One of the specificities of this technology is that they take an extremely short time to set up. It took certain African countries nearly fifty years to get television going, whilst it’s only taken five years for all the African countries to get connected to the internet, some with highly advanced means. Senegal already has a national IP network: wherever you go, you can get the same kind of internet connection as in the capital. The price is thus the same everywhere.
Everybody can gain access for the price of a local phone call.
Yes. And Senegal has made the technological leap, using optical fibre for the whole of the national network. In the future, certain countries may not even use optical fibre, but rather wireless networks, in order to obtain an even greater rate, and thus lower costs. In Senegal, we have a 2Mb rate for international calls, and plan to have much more in the future. Cellular phones, which have taken off enormously in Africa, have opened up connection possibilities and a far greater development than at present, which is going to break the isolation of certain sectors right down to the very last village, not to mention the satellite programmes. The African capital will no longer be the unique pole centralizing everything. This is thus an extraordinary blessing for Africa: we are leaping ahead in relatively short periods of time, and, above all, at costs which seem to me to be really very reasonable when you think of the cost of a traditional phone network, especially as costs are going to drop.
You are very optimistic…
In terms of infrastructures, I think Africa is up to it. The problem of content still needs to be resolved. What is Africa going to contribute and what will it gain? Know-how needs to be installed, user training, which is why the association we have set up has a lot of work in store. We will be able to display our culture and our know-how, our tradition, our art, and, why not, our economic, cultural and social wealth much more easily, without the mediation of structures and relays.
What conclusions have you drawn from your observations?
Conclusion is too strong a word: we have made some interesting observations. One observations is that people do not see these technologies as inaccessible. They are simpler than they thought: people are less afraid of computers than before, which facilitates the move on to the internet. The second observation is that we have seen people who speak neither French nor English take an interest in the internet to do business, and we have seen it in the markets, because there are a lot of phone centres in Senegal. These people come to seek economic, cultural information using the services of someone who knows how to do business. The find out about the price of the products that interest them, which enables them to say: I’ll buy now or I’ll wait. And, above all, we have noticed that the internet is a blessing for the students in the schools or universities which are connected: they have access to documents missing from the Dakar University library, or which cost an arm and a leg in the bookshops. 80% of today’s graduates have looked for their information on the internet. The teachers or medical body who were reticent are beginning to use these technologies: computer assisted medicine is being closely followed by the whole of the medical body; teachers are asking for schools to be connected, and to be trained themselves; renowned Senegalese artists are setting up their sites, have CD-roms presenting what they do, have e-mail addresses… But another lesson is that this will not suffice to generalize the web: an accompaniment is needed, the State needs to take measures to reduce telecommunications costs, and to lower the customs duties on computers and modems. This has happened in Senegal: computers are taxed at 5%, but we still have problems in terms of the phone, even though we have a fully digitalized network throughout the country. We consider that the prices in vigour are still dissuasive in relation to the general standard of living. The solution in the meantime is the phone centres: there are 8000 of them, and thus offer potential public and community access to the internet. Studies are being carried out to transform them into polyvalent phone centres, with access to the internet. All it would need would be to add a computer with an operator who helps people at first, so that it quickly becomes widespread.
Are the advances limited to the internet alone?
Multimedia is also developing, notably CD-Rom production companies, an animation structure for working for the Americans, companies which work long-distance via the internet, which receive, for example, abstracts of judgements, transcribe them and send them back to the sender… The company I work for receives web site orders from major companies in the North, who find it a lot cheaper to do it here. Working together is facilitated by our cultural ties. The work can be followed by the hour, knowing exactly what has just been updated, the readers correct, the programmers make changes until the site is ready. We are also working on a project which will go beyond traditional sales, integrating easy payment possibilities, the de-taxing of the product, and the economic data about the product. Vast potentials are thus emerging, at affordable costs, which are not white elephants.
So Senegal is heading in the direction of being a sub-contractor for a West avid for cheap labour?
The other technologically developing countries will soon catch up with Senegal, particularly when the cellular networks compensate for the deficiencies of the traditional line network. Over the next two to three years, long-distance work will become generalized. What will make the difference will be training, even though it is perfectly possible to work long-distance on the net without having graduated from the classical school system. There are, for example, video surveillance companies, a job which doesn’t require a word of French, or English, or Spanish: it only needs a good pair of eyes and the ability to act according to well-established rules. Other domains are going to open up, such as the possibility to visit countries on the screen, to download a safari from the internet… We will have to offer products to meet the demands of the consumers, using all the wealth of African culture.
How is Osiris financed and how does it function?
Osiris is financed with difficulty by Anaïs. We are a network, we were subsidized by the Fond de la Francophonie, but for the time being, we do not require huge funds because we observe, carry out studies, organize seminars, help projects that are underway, such as the reading centres for young people, which we have given computers to in order to understand how to move on to reading digital books, or to surfing on the net… We also help women’s groups which try to use the internet to understand the fish market, and we help pupils who don’t have the means to set up… In the future, we may have one or two major projects. We want, in particular, to look at how to use the new technologies in the context of an oral culture, which requires some quite serious thought, experiments, and work on specially modified equipment which don’t use keyboards. Only the Africans have raised the question of developing tools to enable completely illiterate people to become literate, to surf on the web, to exchange oral documents, to use visual matter.
This is quite similar to the radio, in fact.
If we want the internet to reach the same audience, we will need to resolve the language barrier as well as the radios have. That means that the means of reception have to be as easy to use as the radio a house-wife uses, with tactile screens, voice operated programmes, adapted systems of transfer and reception, etc.
Which means a less ephemeral content than the radio.
Absolutely, all the more so as we are currently studying cross-overs between the radio and the internet, the radio message relaying the internet’s communicational space more easily.
The reappropriation of the internet in Africa could turn it into a tool for people of oral cultures.
Precisely. And the level of under-equipment needs to be relativized: Africa’s level of equipment today is 1.2%, but the sets are used as if they belonged to 40 people, as we are dealing with a space where solidarity reigns. The same goes for the telephone, which rings much more often than in French homes…
Is the State concerned about these developments?
There is a great fear amongst many African rulers that they do not control what people are going to find on the internet and what the populations are going to do in complete freedom. I think that this explains the delays in many countries, which have hesitated in embracing the internet because their experts warned them that they would not be able to control it. Today still, the timidity of the efforts made to extend its usage can in part be explained by this fear of launching an instrument which cannot be completely mastered.
Do you sense this reticence in the scope of your work?
Less in Senegal: the conditions for using the internet are unlimited. No authorization is needed to be a provider, unlike in practically all the African countries. The role of the Observatory is to ensure that there are no obstacles. In Senegal, what hinders things is the telecom’s monopoly, which is private. Competition would force the prices to drop. The majority of African countries are sitting on the fence, rather than seeking to reap the benefits. They will not be able to stop it: it will develop any how, even if later.
Isn’t there also a fear about the hegemony of Western material on the net?
This hegemony of course exists. We can observe similar fears in the North for that matter: French-speakers vis-à-vis English speakers, for example. But you soon realize that, in reality, people don’t consult the net to speak English or French, but to find solutions to specific problems in the languages they understand. I think that the Africans should be more optimistic: they will also seek out specific information, then will get to grips with a tool which is constantly evolving, finally sending messages in national languages, posting images which are sufficiently explicit to sell an artisanal product, etc. In the end, language will no longer be a handicap. On the other hand, it will be important to handle the know-how, the spheres of communication which exist throughout the world, to identify the needs of the people we are addressing, the very knowledge of the value of what is offered, and that will require a new form of education, as a new world market is going to emerge, a new sphere of communication, a new cultural space, necessitating a preparation, and accompaniment. I am optimistic because I think that we have a technological revolution before us which is more favourable than that of the past: we have a greater opportunity to participate in it. We will be able to involve ourselves in the exchanges better, without going via the usual driving belts. On a State level, the complexity will remain, but citizens will soon be able to exchange material or immaterial goods. The major handicap remains the education necessary for people to appropriate knowledge.
How ought you proceed?
If I were a leader, I would build less universities to create the conditions necessary for the connection of the different sectors, spreading knowledge there. This would be less expensive, and more efficient vis-à-vis the situations which will arise in the future. I would put the onus on self-teaching via these tools, rather than on traditional schooling which is excessively expensive, and which we will never have enough teachers, tutors, etc. for.
Can you give us a quick inventory of the internet in Senegal?
We thought that there were about thirty sites, but a recent study by the Observatory counted nearly 600 sites in Senegal, or dealing with Senegal! Furthermore, there are 13 ISP in Senegal, not to mention all those which have specialized link-ups, but which don’t sell the connection because they use it themselves. The banks have their own intranet system. The Administration is also setting up an intranet system for the State, linking up all the ministries using optical fibre, for telephony, but also for exchanging data. We have 8000 phone centres which, according to the plan, will be able to host 3000 internet connections in a year at the latest. From 3000 surfers three years ago, there are now 30 000, in spite of the exorbitant cost of 12 FF an hour. The State wants to develop the services, which, from the start of the year 2000, will give rise to a range of community phone centres, and to back phone service projects, and to develop the efforts to launch the information economy. We have a rate of 1 Mb via MCI in the States, 2Mb via Téléglobe in Canada, and are preparing a 2Mb connection for France. From what I know, the rate will be increased as soon as the demand necessitates, particularly in the light of this overt desire to make Senegal a telecommunications services country.
So surfers enjoy a connection rate equivalent to that in Europe?
It depends on the type of connection they have. With an RNIS connection, they have 64 Kb, 128, whatever they ask for, but it costs a lot, a lot more than in Europe, and that’s our problem. With a normal modem, they easily have 56 Kb, wherever they are in the country, because the whole network is digitalized. A company can have a very high connection rate: the banks thus use a link-up system for their branches.
The Senegalese phone centres seem to be an original solution…
The brainchild of the people who came up with the phone centres was to delocalize the use of public pay phones thanks to private operators. You can set up a private phone centre in your own home: you open a little booth, a room in your house which opens out onto the street, you put two or three phones in it, and all the people in the neighbourhood come to phone. They can also be called on the number of the phone centre. The telecom operator pays no maintenance or labour costs, and what is more, it creates jobs, each phone centre employing at least two people because they open at 6 am and close at midnight. Progressively, the majority of these phone centres have evolved, now offering faxes, word processing, a postal address. Larger phone centres such as the Métissacana have decided to offer access to the internet. In the future we will be able to go further in the community pooling of resources, with mediators who know how to use the internet, and who can act as a relay for anyone not speaking a word of French or English. This is another way of appropriating the new technologies!

///Article N° : 5417


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