Speech from Dr Hamadoun I. Touré, ITU Secretary-General

ICTP – Science in Africa
Trieste, Italy
6 May 2009


Distinguished colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is indeed a pleasure to be here with you this morning. I am a great believer in the power of cooperation and collaboration, particularly between organizations such as ours, which share so many ambitions and so many common goals.

ITU has a mission which can be expressed very simply: we are “Committed to Connecting the World”.

Incredible progress has been made, particularly in the first decade of this new millennium.

Today, the number of mobile cellular subscriptions has passed the four billion mark, and well over 1.5 billion people have access to the Internet.

Of all the world’s regions, Africa has made the largest relative improvements in mobile subscriptions, with a combined average annual growth rate of an astonishing 49% from 2002 to 2007.

By the end of 2007, African mobile teledensity was higher than that achieved by the Americas in 2002, and the number of mobile cellular subscriptions in Africa was greater than that in the whole world just a decade earlier.

Africa also had the world’s fastest relative improvement in numbers of Internet users, with a combined average annual growth rate of 39% in the five years to 2007.

But these improvements are relative – and a gaping digital divide still remains.

By the end of 2007, mobile penetration had reached 114.6% in Europe, meaning substantially more mobile subscriptions than inhabitants, compared to 28.6% in Africa, or fewer than one subscription for every three people.

And the entire African continent in 2007 – home to over 50 countries and more than 950 million inhabitants – had fewer Internet subscribers than France.

By the beginning of last year, Africa had a fixed broadband Internet subscriber penetration rate of just three subscribers per thousand inhabitants – compared to 194 per thousand in the developed world.

Clearly, there is an immense amount of work still to be done.
Ladies and gentlemen,

There are many reasons to be optimistic.

New technologies – and especially low-cost wireless technologies – offer tremendous potential to dramatically increase connectivity in Africa, and to deliver the full online experience to the millions of people across the continent who either have no access at all, or who are stuck in the slow lane on the Internet superhighway.

But technology is only one part of the puzzle. Without widespread expertise, at the local level, any potential increases in connectivity will necessarily remain limited.

Universities, I believe, have a very powerful role to play – and form a key component in the programmes which ITU and ICTP are working on together.
Across Africa, there are many millions of young people in tertiary education, and we should never forget that young minds are the greatest natural resource we have – and the only resource we need in order to continue to innovate.

Local universities therefore have a crucial role to play – both in developing smart technological solutions based on solid scientific knowledge appropriate to the local environment and needs, and in building capacity within the local population.

Through science and technology research, start-up companies can be inculcated with local skills, thereby expanding ICT industry at the local level, and creating valuable new jobs. This creates a virtuous circle, with more people becoming interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, and themselves then becoming the next generation of ICT entrepreneurs.

Key to increasing knowledge and skills in local institutions is knowledge exchange and collaboration at the local, the national and the international level.
Training and exchange programmes, funding grants and other institutional capacity building efforts are germane to the success of such collaborations – seeing the spread of technological competence beyond simple pilot projects and into operational practice.

We are a firm supporter of ICTP’s activities in this field, and it is of great encouragement to see ICTP becoming a scientific hub, connecting individual and institutional mentors in the developed world with African scientists, researchers, developers and educational institutions. Academic work at the local level can also be greatly enhanced through online access to libraries and the latest academic journals.

ITU itself is contributing directly to the expansion of broadband backbone infrastructure and access networks, as well as increasing investment in rural connectivity projects, through flagship initiatives such as our ‘Wireless Broadband Partnership’, and the ‘Connect Africa’ event, which took place in Rwanda in 2007.
My friends and colleagues,

The natural synergy between the work of ICTP, and ITU’s goal of bringing the benefits of the information society to all the world’s people, makes it not just logical but a pleasure for our organizations to cooperate.

Renewed Joint activities between ITU and ICTP date back to 2005, when the ‘ICT Technology Observatory and Training Unit for Developing Countries’ was established after the agreement signed by our institutions. The training program included various elements such as project management and the financial aspects of wireless networking.

Joint ICTP-ITU training activities have included the yearly Wireless Networking School, and joint workshops such as the one held recently on the ‘Relevance of low cost wireless ICT solutions for Development’, which targeted international experts and decision-makers from Africa. These workshops were particularly timely, as recent technology advances, including the emergence of very low-cost wireless solutions, allow the use of ICTs in a wider range of development areas – and particularly in the educational and scientific environment.

Next month, ITU and ICT are launching perhaps our most important collaboration to date, in the shape of the ‘Strengthening Training Capacity in Wireless Networking in Africa’ project.

The main aim of this project is to transfer low-cost wireless technology know-how to African educational institutions, by mentoring students and sharing knowledge through e-learning – as well on-site visits to transfer specific skills.

This will help develop networks of expertise, through a ‘train-the-trainer’ approach, which will allow the rapid spread of knowledge into the wider community, thus enabling the rollout of new networks and new opportunities for local connectivity.

The project will establish wireless technology training centres at selected African educational institutions; the training of trainers on related ICT curricula; the provision of training materials; and launching of dedicated training opportunities.

The project will also encourage the participation of women and young people in the ICT sector. This is particularly important, given that in sub-Saharan Africa, women are more under-represented in tertiary education than in any other region of the world.
Ladies and gentlemen,

ICTs are the great enabler of modern society, helping people communicate across distance and across cultural divides, facilitating trade, and providing access to critical resources, such as healthcare and education.

In the 21st century, ICT networks are at least as critical to economic and social development as more traditional networks like transport, power and water.

I therefore applaud ICTP’s efforts to ensure that ever more of the world’s people have access to modern, affordable communications infrastructure, and the social and economic benefits which derive from them.

Thank you.