Internet Geographer


Project Kick-off: The Promises of Fibre-Optic Broadband in East Africa

Today is the official start-date of our project, titled “The Promises of Fibre-Optic Broadband: A Pipeline for Economic Development in East Africa?” The thirty-month project is framed by the recent landing of a series of fibre-optic cables into East Africa. Before the construction of these connections, East Africa was the world‟s last major region without fibre-optic broadband Internet access, and until the summer of 2009 had been forced to rely on slow and costly satellite connections for access. However, after years of work and massive investment, the region is (in theory) ready to take advantage of much faster Internet speeds and much lower prices.

Politicians and commentators from around the world have hailed the potential of the Internet to spark economic development and allow East African businesses and entrepreneurs to market their strengths unhindered by many of the previous limiting effects of distance. However, these projections are often made in the absence of data about current East African communications practices. This project therefore aims to examine the changing communications ecology and the effects of the region‟s newfound connectivity.

Employing case-studies in two East African countries (Kenya and Rwanda), this project examines the expectations and stated potentials of broadband Internet and compares those expectations to on-the-ground effects that broadband connectivity is having in three economic sectors: tea production (a core commodity-based export- oriented industry in both countries), ecotourism (a key element of the tourism industry in East Africa) and business process outsourcing (an emerging growth industry in both countries producing intangible products and services).

The project is based at the University of Oxford, with co-investigators based at the University of Nairobi and the National University of Rwanda. Given the diverse nature of the participants, I’d like to use this opportunity to introduce our team:

Oxford Team

Mark Graham is primary investigator of the project and is a Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. He is particularly interested in the multiplicity of attempts to implement development and reduce a ‘digital divide’ by altering relative economic distance and reconfiguring commodity chains in places on the global periphery. He also has a longstanding interest in understanding the geographies of the Internet and the ways in which digital representations of urban environments have the power to redefine, reconfigure, and reorder the cities that they represent. His most recent publications can be accessed at this link.

Laura Mann will be a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute (starting Oct 1) and will play a key role in managing the project, conducting fieldwork, analysing the results and disseminating our findings. She is currently a doctoral candidate at the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh, finalising her thesis on the liberalisation and globalisation of the Sudanese labour market. Prior to her work on Sudan, Laura worked as a media manager for an Egyptian public relations company and as a research assistant to the Population Council in Cairo. Her own research focuses on theories of communication in market economies and how these relate to the experience of liberalization for individuals involved in 'markets’ on the ground. In particular, she is interested in how discourses about social networks and ICT have changed the construction and evolution of markets in Africa and the Middle East.

Nairobi Team

Tim Waema is a Co-investigator in the project and is an Associate Professor in the School of Computing and Informatics in the University of Nairobi. He lectures and does research in a variety of areas in Information Systems. Tim has a wide range of experience in consultancy in many areas of ICT and management, including strategic planning at both corporate and ICT levels, telecommunications, information systems assessment, ICT systems development and implementation, project management, change management, results-based management, and ICTs and national socio-economic development.

Charles Katua is a Research Assistant based at the University of Nairobi. Charles was previously a Software Implementer and System Developer and graduated with a Master of Science in Information Systems from the University of Nairobi.

Butare Team

Felix Akorli is a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Applied Science at the National University of Rwanda. He is the coordinator of the MSc in ICT program at NUR. Felix has previously coordinated the Gasabo District Digital Community Network project funded under the Sixth Framework Programme of Research of the European Commission and worked as a lecturer at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana.

Claude Bizimana is a Research Assistant based at the National University of Rwanda. Claude has an MSc in Agricultural Economics from the University of Natal and a BSc in Economics from the National University of Rwanda. He has also taken PhD preliminary courses from the Development Research Institute at Tilburg University and has consulted for the World Bank, World Vision, and the Rwandan Ministry of Agriculture.

We all plan to provide regular updates on the project via this blog and would welcome any comments, suggestions and questions at any point in the project.

Finally, we would like to give thanks to support received from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the British Academy and the John Fell Fund.