Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

“Everyone wants to eat like an American on this globe”

Don’t ever forget that this is exactly the problem – and why not? Remember the famous words of Oscar Brown Jr: “You so rich and free and fat; Son-of-a-bitch that’s where it’s at!”

Whether an American, Brit, Netherlander – it doesn’t matter. Plenty of people on this Earth are rich and fat and clean. We bang wives made out of girls from Ipanema, buy, wear, drive and eat whatever we like and send our kids off to University to learn how to do even better than us. Good God, man, who wouldn’t want a part of that?

From the New York Times:

Everywhere, the cost of food is rising sharply. Whether the world is in for a long period of continued increases has become one of the most urgent issues in economics.

Many factors are contributing to the rise, but the biggest is runaway demand. In recent years, the world’s developing countries have been growing about 7 percent a year, an unusually rapid rate by historical standards.

The high growth rate means hundreds of millions of people are, for the first time, getting access to the basics of life, including a better diet. That jump in demand is helping to drive up the prices of agricultural commodities.

Farmers the world over are producing flat-out. American agricultural exports are expected to increase 23 percent this year to $101 billion, a record. The world’s grain stockpiles have fallen to the lowest levels in decades.

The article mentions, interestingly, how fortunate farmers are (one, in particular – what’s a newspaper story without an anecdotal anchor, after all?). I’m not so convinced. Costs are increasing for them, also. Fuel and food are big parts of their factor costs and, while they can certainly extract greater rent from Consumer (non-lexicographically-inclined readers, this means jack up the price to make more profit), even the mere perception of this is going to put signficant strain on America’s thoroughly embarassing farm welfare. Meanwhile those costs are appreciating rapidly, just as they are for the rest of us (the NYT does mention this). The only difference is that farmers are producing one of the inflating-price goods: how’s your control over the labour market going, these days? Yeah, didn’t think so.

This – the death of farm welfare – is a good thing, certainly – provided it comes off. More likely is that, with even greater control as a lobbied-for group, farmers will also extract rents from Governments trying to get them to grow basic foodstuffs for the common good (not, for example, mustard seeds – and yes, David, I know ‘the market’ should sort all of that out).

In all this, though, what the writer really nailed was one of the two causes: global demand (the other is crop yields – maybe climate change (I think so), maybe not):

As the newly urbanized and newly affluent seek more protein and more calories, a phenomenon called “diet globalization” is playing out around the world. Demand is growing for pork in Russia, beef in Indonesia and dairy products in Mexico. Rice is giving way to noodles, home-cooked food to fast food.

Though wracked with upheaval for years and with many millions still rooted in poverty, Nigeria has a growing middle class. Median income per person doubled in the first half of this decade, to $560 in 2005. Much of this increase is being spent on food.

Nigeria grows little wheat, but its people have developed a taste for bread, in part because of marketing by American exporters. Between 1995 and 2005, per capita wheat consumption in Nigeria more than tripled, to 44 pounds a year. Bread has been displacing traditional foods like eba, dumplings made from cassava root.

Mr. Ojuku, the man who buys fewer loaves, and one of his fellow tailors in Lagos, Mukala Sule, 39, are trying to adjust to the new era.

“I must eat bread and tea in the morning. Otherwise, I can’t be happy,” Mr. Sule said as he sat on a bench at a roadside cafe a few weeks ago. For a breakfast that includes a small loaf, he pays about $1 a day, twice what the traditional eba would have cost him.

To save a few pennies, he decided to skip butter. The bread was the important thing.

“Even if the price goes up,” Mr. Sule said, “if I have the money, I’ll still buy it.”

Eco 1 students, for the extra credit: is Mr. Ojuku behaving rationally?

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Over-fishing = migration problems (no, not of fish)

Here’s an interesting string of negative externalities:

  1. Fish prices in Europe do not reflect the depletion of fishing stocks (in, say, the North Sea)
  2. Fishing stocks are depleted (this is the tragedy of the commons)
  3. European countries move their fishing enterprises farther afield, striking bargains with African coastal countries to (over-)fish their waters
  4. Fishing stocks in African waters become depleted also
  5. Illegal immigration from Africa to Europe increases

Eh? We came upon the first few of these points way back in an earlier post:

… why are we doing this? Because we like fish (genereally speaking – I like them enough to wish we didn’t eat them) and we either don’t know or don’t care about declining biodiversity. Both of the latter are true. We don’t know. Do you know what it is you’re eating at the local chippy? Or which ocean the thing actually came from?

I fancy the chances that you don’t. You don’t know whether you’re eating Cod that was accidentally scooped up by a trawler looking for Haddock (or that you have Cod because the standard fishes of the day have disappeared). You don’t know whether you’re eating fish from the territorial waters of a poor country in Africa, because your country’s waters are ‘dry’ (so to speak) and you got these fishing rights on the cheap. Too cheap for them, and too cheap for you. Why?

I say ‘too cheap’ for you (the consumer) because of the not-caring crack made above. You might care, you might not. But when you enter the supermarket, odds are you buy a fish based on the price. That’s the information given to you. None of this other stuff is provided. There’s no pseudo-Surgeon-General’s warning that Eating This Fish Might Cause Critical Loss of Biodiversity And Shorten Humanity. As consumers we typically aren’t this well informed, and we purchase according to a price that does not include the loss of biomass, the loss of biodiversity, the loss of future wellbeing and income in Angola, etc.

I’ll just use Europe as an exemplar, here – it does the most over-fishing, and is attracting the immigration, so it works well enough.

So that’s the fish – how did they grow into chickens that are now coming home to roost in the form of illegal immigrants (this is a generic term – I’m prepared to argue that there are no such thing)?

A vast flotilla of industrial trawlers from the European Union, China, Russia and elsewhere, together with an abundance of local boats, have so thoroughly scoured northwest Africa’s ocean floor that major fish populations are collapsing.

That has crippled coastal economies and added to the surge of illegal migrants who brave the high seas in wooden pirogues hoping to reach Europe. While reasons for immigration are as varied as fish species, Europe’s lure has clearly intensified as northwest Africa’s fish population has dwindled.

Last year roughly 31,000 Africans tried to reach the Canary Islands, a prime transit point to Europe, in more than 900 boats. About 6,000 died or disappeared, according to one estimate cited by the United Nations.

The region’s governments bear much of the blame for their fisheries’ decline. Many have allowed a desire for money from foreign fleets to override concern about the long-term health of their fisheries. Illegal fishermen are notoriously common; efforts to control fishing, rare.

How do we fix this? Several options. Europe is blaming Africa:

European Union officials insist that their bloc, which has negotiated fishing deals with Africa since 1979, is a scapegoat for Africa’s management failures and the misdeeds of other foreign fleets. They argue that African officials oversell fishing rights, inflate potential catches and allow pirate vessels and local boats free rein in breeding grounds.

harbor, for instance, remains littered with 107 wrecked fishing trawlers eight years after the European Union promised to clear them to help develop the port.

In their defense, European officials say they moved to reform their fishing agreements in 2003 to address criticism that ship operators were overfishing and were undercutting local fishermen. Fabrizio Donatella, who heads the European Union unit that negotiates fishing deals, says the new agreements are models of responsible fishing and transparency.

“One cannot say we are not fishing the surplus or that we have not respected scientific recommendations,” he said. Ultimately, African governments must protect and manage their own resources, he said.

If Europe is so enlightened, then, it would behove it (speaking planetarily) to withdraw its fleets. “Europe” can hardly call for personal responsibility by African nations when the imbalance of economic might is so great – it just doesn’t work that way. If nothing else, it – and the rest of the world: be it the EU, WTO, WHO, UN hell, NATO would be fine – should just take over the task of survey and science with regards to African coastal waters and fishing stocks. It is, after all, in our interest to start conserving this resource at some point: I don’t know of fish anywhere else nearby, apart from this small planet.

African countries, in turn, can tell everyone to piss off – but many are in such a state of under-development that this just isn’t likely. Dysfunctionally-managed, often corrupt but, at best, just trying to fight their way out of a poverty trap when every tide flows against them, they’ll take the money, however unfairly distributed the returns on African fish are.

Within Europe, the negative externalities, as per the string at the top, have reached back into our economy – not into the market causing the harm, but back into the economy causing the harm, and this is a positive thing. By being made to bear some of the burden, Europe now faces a direct incentive to stop making such a bloody mess of things out of its own gluttony.

More likely? Merely nominal changes to development aid/behaviour in Africa, and harsh anti-immigration law enforcement/detention to deal with the human consequence. That’s just the way we do things.

Africa aid wiped out by rising cost of oil

In case you missed this one today.

The rising cost of oil has wiped out the benefits many African countries were expecting from western aid and debt relief over the past three years, new research from the International Energy Agency has shown.

Africa enjoyed a surge in western engagement during the UK’s presidency of the Group of Eight leading industrialised countries, culminating in a commitment by world leaders to a broad package of debt relief and increased aid at the 2005 Gleneagles summit in Scotland. But since then oil prices have steadily risen towards $100 a barrel.

Surveying 13 non-oil-producing African countries, including South Africa, Ghana, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Senegal, the IEA found that the increase in the cost of oil bought by the countries since 2004 was equivalent to 3 per cent of combined GDP.

This was more than the sum of debt relief and aid received over the past three years by the countries, which have a combined population of 270m, of whom 104m live on less than $1 a day.

The IEA’s warning comes as Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade said “crippling” oil prices threatened to provoke “unrest and violence” in Africa.

Score.

Measurement and malnutrition (and media)

Reading the IHT on my phone over lunch:

Child malnutrition rates have increased sharply in Darfur, even though it is home to the world’s largest aid operation, according to a new United Nations report.

The report showed that 16.1 percent of children affected by the conflict in Darfur, a vast, turbulent region in western Sudan, are acutely malnourished, compared with 12.9 percent last year. For the first time since 2004, the malnutrition rate, a gauge of the population’s overall distress, has crossed what UN officials consider to be the emergency threshold.

Just as important, the increase has occurred despite the efforts of more than 12,000 relief workers in Darfur, drawing from an annual aid budget of about a billion dollars. Aid officials said they were concerned that even with all these resources, the situation for the people in Darfur seemed to be getting worse.

Annoyingly, I cannot find the freakin’ report. Which is more than somewhat annoying. Google is letting me down. Also, it seems Somalia feels like it has missed the media cycle (joining the world media club – alumni including Kashmir, Bosnia, the West Bank, Uganda, the Congo, Tibet …).

However. Back to the story.

The report seems to confirm what aid officials in Darfur have been saying for months: that the increasingly chaotic security situation, both inside the enormous camps of displaced people and in the desiccated rural areas that are very difficult to reach even in the best of times, has gotten to the point that it is hampering the delivery of much-needed emergency food. The report said there was an “urgent need to improve security conditions.”

The new UN report was based on information collected in August and September from thousands of Darfurians affected by the conflict, including those living in squalid camps (the United Nations estimates roughly 2.2 million people have been displaced by fighting). The report cited “consistently poor infant and young child feeding practices” and a “deterioration in the overall food security situation.”

The report also showed that the percentage of Darfurians growing their own crops had decreased this year compared with last. The people surveyed said that insecurity and a lack of access to their farms were the main reasons, though Sudanese officials have hypothesized that some Darfurians may have simply grown dependent on food aid and chosen to stop farming.

Malnutrition was highest among young children, between 6 months and 29 months old, and in the North Darfur state, which is sparsely populated and very dry.

The statistics part – and this is why I wanted to find the report – has to do with the numbers because, as I began reading the story, an alternate/confounding explanation entered my head. What if (a) with more refugees, more people may be leaving? Healthier people, probably, make it out – leaving sicker people behind. Hence, up go the malnutrition rates, but not the numbers; or (b) the mortality rates for those kids are inversely related – meaning fewer kids are dying, but the next category up is living with malnutrition. Up go the numbers and the rates, but they represent kids that don’t die anymore.

Hence my desire to see the report (I think it’s the millenium goals one, also viewable here – for which it is not worth my while to pay USD20 for the statistical compendium, for one blog post). I want to see the numbers.

I’m not arguing that Darfur is full of rainbows and blue helmets, or anything, mind: this is just my statistics eye opening. I should be very surprised indeed if there’s anything at all redeeming in the numbers. The Econometrician part of my brain would also dearly like to start quantifying the money and the health outcomes. Which I choose to believe does not mean that I’m completely messed-up. Opinions differ.

“The race to invest in Zimbabwe also underscores just how far global investors are willing to stretch in search of decent returns”

An update on the laughable-if-it-weren’t-such-a-tragedy basket-case of our times, Zimbabwe. From the Wall Street Journal:

Zimbabwe is an economic nightmare. The annual inflation rate is 8,000% and rising. People don’t have food to eat.

Yet investors have started pouring millions of dollars into the country. Foreign direct investment has rebounded, reaching $103 million in 2005, up from just $4 million in 2003, according to the most recent figures available from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

What explains the flood of money? Some investors are betting there’s nowhere to go but up. A slump like Zimbabwe’s can’t last, and when it’s over — perhaps with the graceful, or otherwise, exit of President Robert Mugabe, who has presided over a decades-long downward spiral — the country will rebound.

The race to invest in Zimbabwe also underscores just how far global investors are willing to stretch in search of decent returns. The turmoil in global credit markets has rippled across emerging economies, boosting yields for some of the riskiest bets around.

At the same time, in recent years, relatively sluggish returns in many developed markets have sent investors farther afield.

Africa overall is emerging as a hot destination for money. Amid a global commodities boom, investment bankers from around the world are flocking to African commercial hubs such as Lagos, Nigeria, and Johannesburg.

Part of the challenge of investing in Zimbabwe is figuring out how much anything is actually worth, given the plummeting Zimbabwean dollar.

The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe fixes the exchange rate at 30,000 Zimbabwean dollars to the U.S. dollar. The problem: Zimbabweans don’t put much faith in that figure — if they did, they’d quickly lose all their money.

There is another, presumably more accurate, method of estimating what a Zim dollar is worth. Dubbed the “Old Mutual Implied Rate,” it offers a glimpse of the obstacles to doing business in Zimbabwe.

It is based on the share price of Old Mutual, a British investment company whose stock trades on three different markets — London, Johannesburg and Zimbabwe’s capital of Harare. Because all Old Mutual shares are of equal value, it is possible to extrapolate the market value of the Zim dollar by comparing the price of Old Mutual shares on the different markets.

On Friday, the Old Mutual Implied Rate stood at 2,596,784 Zimbabwean dollars to the U.S. dollar.

Blimey. Didn’t most of the credit problems begin with firms tossing risk aside in the chase for unsustainable yields? I did say that Zimbabwe could certainly recover: many countries have done so. Speculation on this sort of scale isn’t going to help that happen (although it can’t be much worse than having the IMF do their dirty work for them).

Won’t somebody just default on Zimbabwe?

I can only think Zimbabwe, formerly the bread basket of its region, is deliberately pushing the accepted definitions of sovereignty.

Zimbabwe’s bakeries have shut and supermarkets have warned there will be no bread for the foreseeable future as the government admitted that wheat production has collapsed after the seizure of white-owned farms.

Last week, the government said it plans to import 100,000 tonnes of wheat but acknowledged that a shipment of 35,000 tonnes is held up in Mozambique because of a shortage of hard currency to pay for it. The agriculture minister, Rugare Gumbo, blamed the food shortages on black farmers who have taken over formerly white-owned land.

Nice – you mean those former soldiers with nothing but poverty and anger, whose support you won by pushing white farmers out of the economy and country, not even all that long ago? Rush Limbaugh would indeed be proud, the snivelling, hypocritical drug addict.

Who honestly thought that utterly non-trained people would assume entire farms and be able to reproduce harvests? Still less in the face of political tribalism that has not only superceded government, but gone almost completely (short of Lord of War caricatures of Charles Taylor) apeshit.

So: kicked out the skilled work-force (ooh, now where does that failure of intelligent planning ring a bell?); infrastructure disappearing from theft by hungry people; crops dying from failing infrastructure; food and electricity drying up because country’s out of currency; government planning on taking away 51% (minimum) of every foreign-owned company; government blaming black people, promising more and saying they’ll start a new currency.

The funny thing is, it isn’t even as though this is irrepairable – Russia managed. The trouble is this sort of shit just invites bankruptcy, penury, starvation and the arrival of the IMF to deliver far more foreign and white ownership than any post-Rhodesian-born Zimbabwean could imagine.

I’ll consider no age an enlightened one until tribalism (including religion) has no place in government.

There are no basic principles of good economic management that Zimbabwe will not break

That, at least, is my understanding. Sadly, because I’m a naive tool, when I saw the headline, “Zimbabwe will grab foreign firms”, my response was positive. ‘Ooh, great’, I thought. ‘Zimbabwe is investing in foreign enterprises.’

I’m still a little sleepy, is my only excuse.

Zimbabwe’s parliament has passed a bill giving local owners majority control of foreign-owned companies including mines and banks, threatening to drive the fragile economy deeper into crisis.

President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, which enjoys a majority in parliament, pushed through the legislation today after members of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) walked out in protest.

Mugabe’s government – which critics accuse of plunging Zimbabwe into turmoil by seizing white-owned farms and handing them to inexperienced black farmers – says the bill is part of its drive to empower the country’s poor majority.

“We cannot continue to have a skewed economic environment where our people are not able to fully participate,” Paul Mangwana, the Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Minister told parliament during the debate.

A few things: first, Zimbabwean voters must be dumber than ours. Mugabe’s been in power (actually in power – not like Republicans are in power) for 27 years now. Who in the hell else ought to be considered responsible? I don’t think the IMF has even done that much damage to Zimbabwe.

Second:

Mugabe … has accused some foreign-owned firms of working with his Western opponents to topple his government by unfairly hiking prices and stashing foreign currency proceeds abroad.

That would, of course, also be known as doing business in a country with countless-digit inflation and a habit of the government’s of mandating prices for everything.

Third: fortunately at least one opposing spokesperson understood one of the key rules of developing economies.

MDC legislators argued the law was designed to enrich a few powerful individuals and win votes for ZANU-PF in parliamentary and presidential elections due next March.

“As far as we are concerned, this bill is cast in concrete but I want to urge the minister to reconsider because our economy needs foreign direct investment,” MDC MP Innocent Gonese said during heated debate in which an opposition member was ejected.

Stanbic Zimbabwe – a subsidiary of South Africa’s Standard Bank noted in a presentation to a parliament committee yesterday that only four of the 28 banking institutions in the country were foreign owned, proposing that “the current status be retained.”

Don’t get me wrong – I believe in people over profits, but understand that Mugabe’s policy is precisely the opposite. Poor developing countries, especially utter basket-cases like Zimbabwe, need to follow the few basic rules of stabilisation and attracting foreign capital:

  1. Increase savings and investment
  2. Increase investment in education and health
  3. Stop internal unrest
  4. Enforce the rule of law

Given that Zimbabweans can’t even afford food, these days, even inflation does not affect the absence of savings. Nor, it seems, can they manage investments in education and health. What remains? Attracting foreign capital that can do that for them. Which will not happen without recognition of property rights and enforcement of the rule of law.

Anyone who thinks my attitude equals colonial paternalism, drop me a line – I have a business in Zimbabwe in which I’d like you to invest.

Meanwhile, of course, the rest of us (Prime Minister Brown notwithstanding), just don’t give a shit. The President in this country cheerfully goes around talking about all the Mandela’s that Saddam Hussein killed (gassed them with all that US aid money and political cover, I suppose). God forbid we could do something about the 2008 Iraq War Budget of USD198bn (and that’s just what they’re admitting to) and start improving Africa. Hell, even the current administration’s criminal Trade Not Aid (they do prefer style over any substance whatsoever, don’t they?) bait-and-switch would still be an improvement.

Nigeria’s un-re-denomination

From the BBC:

Nigerian Justice Minister Michael Aondoakaa said he is freezing a plan to re-denominate the Nigerian currency, the naira.

The plan had been announced by the governor of the Central Bank, Chukwuma Soludo, last week.

Mr Aondoakaa said the plan was frozen because President Umaru Yar’Adua had not given his written permission.

It was a little more than week ago that Nigeria was set to free its currency.

There are a couple of elements to this. The first, obviously, is telling the world that one’s currency is to be re-denominated, and that one’s central bank will cease all but the accepted norm of ForEx interference, only to have the Prime Minister Colin Powell that central bank’s governor a week later.*

* Colin Powell, the active verb, refers to the pollaxing Powell got while travelling solo as Secretary of State, trying to patch-up Bush’s cock-ups while Cheney’s chickenhawks tore his nest to pieces in his absence (as per the cowards they are).

An almost-irony of this, of course, is that the move was intended to increase investment in Nigeria (a key ingredient to long-run economic growth, catching up, etc.). The churlishness of non-economist leadership has left less confidence in the naira than ever.

The other is the position of Chukwuma Soludo in the management of the currency (and, by extension, the stability of the economy).

… this is a major humiliation for Mr Soludo and there is growing speculation that politically he will not survive this debacle.

As head of the Central Bank for the past few years, he has overseen major banking reforms in Nigeria.

But just a few weeks ago the country’s new President, Umaru Yar’Adua, chose Mr Soludo’s deputy, not him, for the job of finance minister in the new cabinet, and the central banker has been dropped from the government’s economic team.

All I know is that I would neither build nor buy a factory in a country whose President doesn’t listen to his central bank chairman (it’s usually the other way around). I could be unfair – the President may have a team of very capable economists around him.

Development, Interrupted or: At Least Africa Won’t Have An Internet Porn Problem

Via NEWSgrist and the Robert Goldwater Library, from the New York Times.

Attempts to bring affordable high-speed Internet service to the masses have made little headway on the continent. Less than 4 percent of Africa’s population is connected to the Web; most subscribers are in North African countries and the republic of South Africa.

A lack of infrastructure is the biggest problem. In many countries, communications networks were destroyed during years of civil conflict, and continuing political instability deters governments or companies from investing in new systems. E-mail messages and phone calls sent from some African countries have to be routed through Britain, or even the United States, increasing expenses and delivery times. About 75 percent of African Internet traffic is routed this way and costs African countries billions of extra dollars each year that they would not incur if their infrastructure was up to speed.

Africa’s only connection to the network of computers and fiber optic cables that are the Internet’s backbone is a $600 million undersea cable running from Portugal down the west coast of Africa. Built in 2002, the cable was supposed to provide cheaper and faster Web access, but so far that has not happened.

Rwandan officials were especially interested in wiring primary and secondary schools, seeing information technology as crucial to modernizing the country’s rural economy. Some 90 percent of the country’s eight million people work in agriculture.

But as of mid-July, only one-third of the 300 schools covered in Terracom’s contract had high-speed Internet service. All 300 were supposed to have been connected by 2006.

Over all, less than 1 percent of the population is connected to the Internet.

It is hard, from the story (and from, I imagine, the actual circumstances) to figure out exactly the problem. The company, Terracom, is based in Boston and, after its original sales pitch and monopoly-win, bought out the national Telco, Rwandanet. Meaning Rwand’s monopoly telecommunications provider is in Boston, in the hands of a guy who’d never set foot in Rwanda before, and has only been there a few times a year since.

The owner Greg Wyler is criticised for delivering very little of his internet promises, while signing up as many people to mobile telephony as he can, and while complaining that the bandwidth problem is the bandwith problem – there are only so many satellites to go around, satellites offer much less bandwidth and one company cannot hook Africa up to FTTN networks on its own.

To some extent that’s fair, however he’d have generated a lot more interest by governments if his operation were more serious. After being busted a while ago, trying to offload Terracom shares to a regional provider, in contravention of the contract he’d signed with the Rwandan government, Terracom has a new Chief Executive, who’s worked in Africa a lot and is in Rwanda full-time (apparently, service has improved).

The New York Times manages to stitch together the solution:

Prices remain high because the national telecommunications linked to the cable maintain a monopoly over access, squeezing out potential competitors. And plans for a fiber optic cable along the East African coast have stalled over similar access issues. Most countries in Eastern Africa, like Rwanda, depend on slower satellite technology for Internet service.

Internet rates have been lowered, from about $1,000 a month when Terracom arrived in 2003, but most people still can’t afford it. The average Rwandan makes about $220 a year, and a fixed-line Internet hookup costs about $90 a month. Basic wireless Internet is about $63 a month. Those rich enough to pay the fees complain about poor service.

Terracom is moving ahead with plans to give Rwanda the most advanced Internet infrastructure in Africa. A nationwide wireless connection should begin operating near year-end, he said, about the time a nonprofit group, One Laptop Per Child, based in Boston, is to introduce a $100 laptop in the country.

And Terracom is continuing to lay fiber optic cables to connect Rwanda to several other African countries, eliminating a need for phone calls and Internet traffic to be routed via European or American networks.

The government, meanwhile, is moving forward with its own plans to build a fiber optic network. It also has granted Internet service licenses to South African companies and plans to issue several more. “We think we are going to have a healthier market pretty soon,” said Nkubito Bakuramutsa, director general of the Rwanda Information Technology Authority. “We have learned from past experience.”

Mr. Bakuramutsa said he hopes to bring the price of Internet service down to about $10 a month.

I realise I wrote only on Friday about natural monopolies, but in this instance it won’t operate quite the same – or it will, but the monopoly will be state-owned. In order to generate the seriousness of the priority, several competitors will need to be in place. Mostly, I would say, that is because, at the moment, it is people complaining about not having internet access (or electricity), but not all that many, and not commercial enterprises. Once more companies are competing, driving prices down and generating critical mass for the demand, the Rwandan government will become very serious about those plans for the fibre-optic network, and should ultimately follow the path of, say, Botswana, famous for establishing security and attracting foreign investment, and generally doing well (all things being relative).

At the same time, and leaving the grounded-economics, the effects on information, media, evidence-based medicine and, ultimately, the rights of women and children, land and resources conservation and democracy itself would easily surpass anything we’ll ever achieve smashing the birthplace of civilisation to blood pieces.

Then, who knows. Some stable public ownership or corrupt fire-sale privatisation to cronies. It would probably depend upon the state of the continent, as a whole (who figured on Zimbabwe going to shit so quickly?). Given how far behind they are, though, it is worth the effort of African countries to lay their networks now, before they become another generation of technology behind.

Africa remains the least connected region in the world, and the digital gap between it and the developed world is widening rapidly. “Unless you can offer Internet access that is the same as the rest of the world, Africa can’t be part of the global economy or academic environment,” said Lawrence H. Landweber, professor emeritus of computer science at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, who was also part of an early effort to bring the Web to Africa in the mid-1990s. “The benefits of the Internet age will bypass the continent.”

Here’s the New York Times graphic on internet usage:

NY Times graphic

And another on world internet traffic using the top 5 protocols, by McAffee’s HackerWatch:

internet usage

There’s also a great interactive map here. Internet penetration in Niger is apparely 0.2% of the population (it’s 68% in the US, Canada, Australia).