For more than 150 years, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has spearheaded global telecommunications which has shaped the world to what it is today.
Founded in 1865 to facilitate international connectivity in communications networks, the ITU has allocated global radio spectrums and satellite orbits, developed the technical standards that ensure networks and technologies for seamless interconnections, and strived to improve access to ICTs to underserved communities worldwide. As a matter of fact, every time you make a phone call through your mobile, access the Internet or send an email, you are benefitting from the work of ITU.
To better understand the works of the ITU in the region, Capital’s Metasebia Teshome reached out to Anne-Rachel Inné, the ITU Regional Director for Africa for in-depth insights of the organization’s developments.
Anne-Rachel, in her diverse work portfolio also serves as liaison to the African Union and UNECA. She also has 25 years of experience in international telecommunications – Internet/ICTs, and has worked as an executive at several global Internet root organisations. She holds an MBA in International Finance/Economics-International Management. The following are excerpts from the candid interview;
Capital: What is the ITU doing in the region and in Ethiopia?
Anne-Rachel Inné: Established in 1865 to manage the first international telegraph networks, the International Telecommunication Union has worked ceaselessly since then to connect the world. Over the years, the Union’s mandate has expanded to cover the invention of voice telephony, the development of radio-communications, the launch of the first communications satellites, and most recently, the telecommunications-based information age. Along the way, ITU’s structure and activities have evolved and adapted to meet the needs of this changing mandate.
By 1992, the ITU had three bureaus namely; Radiocommunication, Telecommunication Standardization and Telecommunication Development. At the time, following the expanding needs of the work of the Telecommunication Development Sector which is supported by its Secretariat, the Telecommunication Development Bureau, the Secretary General of ITU then had asked countries to express their willingness to host the ITU to which Ethiopia came forward to host as the capital of Africa. Since then the regional office has been based here in Addis Ababa and we cover 44 of the Sub Saharan Africa countries. We also work in tandem with the other 10 Arab countries which have their base in Cairo.
ITU is the only organization where you have six regions instead of the regular five of the UN. This is because one of the issues that we have actually on the internet is bringing people on board in the sphere of the various languages, which we are aggressively working on. So by that construction, we actually have two offices in African because the Arab region office is in Cairo and the regional office for the sub Saharan Africa is in Addis Ababa. We have three other area offices in Dakar, Yaoundé and one in Harare. We have what we call host country agreement here in Ethiopia and we are actually located in Legehar, in the offices of Ethio telecom, which is a government office. Here in Addis we are taking care of issues on telecommunication and ICTs for the whole continent.
Some of our primary focus areas include looking into the agenda 2063, digital transformation for Africa, and also the national strategies like the one in Ethiopia with regards to digital transformation. On a daily basis, we talk to member states helping them best shape their digital transformation goals on actual projects that we have in their countries and work on the overall development landscape with partner groups in their countries. Of course every country has its own digital transformation aspirations so our work varies from country to country.
We also tackle the important areas of development such as: How to get the infrastructure? How to get the skills? How to get in a continent that is as large as 30 million square kilometers with a population of 1.4 billion people?
Capital: How do you think the continent benefits from digitalization? Do you think that Africa is accordingly growing with digital technologies in compatible ways to our development?
Anne-Rachel Inné: We’re the youngest continent and we’re going to continue to be the youngest continent. About 65 percent of our population is under the age of 25. However on the down side, 60 to 80 percent of our population in general is in rural communities.
If we really want universal connectivity, we have to ask, what are the areas that can be of competitive advantages for Africa to really get to development? Once we have identified those priorities, then we are on a good trajectory to development.
Right now, the continent is working aggressively to fully implement the Africa continental free trade area. For instance, Africa has the highest proportion of women entrepreneurs that is 25 percent, which is a global high. For some of the women that we’re helping here that are in leather, coffee, and garments industry, we need them instead of shipping outside, to be able to give the opportunity to all of the other countries in Africa to benefit from those resources that we have in Ethiopia.
Take the case, for example, some things like the best of sugars that we have that come from cultivation, we send them to Europe or to America instead of trading with ourselves. Why? Because we don’t have roads, trains, planes, or elaborate logistics systems in short. We don’t have harmonized policies around all of these, but that narrative must change. Down the road, having an African passport will be integral to the continent’s success which will enhance connectivity. Such initiatives will streamline commerce activities across the corners of Africa.
And if you ask where’s digitalization here? Well digitalization will be instrumental in helping us to know who has what, helps us to have contact information access, conduct transactions online, anywhere, and at any place. As a result of building this foundation what remains will be utilizing technology and data to lead in more informed decision-making in various aspects of society, including environmental sustainability and governance. It is important to continue exploring and implementing these tools to address complex challenges facing our world.
But for that to happen, we need to make sure that going digital will indeed speak the language of our people, and respect our cultures and integrate with our everyday lives. We don’t want to be just consumers of tech, or copy paste technology. We need to tailor tech to work to our needs which might not be the same for the rest of the globe.
With regards to compatibility of technology with our development we need to be cognizant of our situation. For example, as I stated earlier, 60 to 80% of the population is in rural areas and even going to school is hard, not to mention being connected. We have challenges of connectivity. It needs to be affordable. We also have challenges in taxation in terms of how much tax do we get on these instruments and then on the equipment in general, whose prices need to be lowered.
Capital: There are lots of challenges our population is facing including Infrastructure, lack of skill, and affordability of new technologies. How do you think we can cope with these?
Anne-Rachel Inné: We all have a role in working to minimize these challenges. We can’t wait for government to take lead in everything. Starting from the media, we need to trickle the right amount of technological information to the citizens, not only for entertainment but to inspire them to take hands on approach towards their own technologies for the country’s development. We need to be producers of the technology; that is the Africa that we want. We need to help our people not just simply be on the receiving end.
This can be achieved by investing in STEM education and creating a conducive environment for innovation and entrepreneurship. With these efforts, we can empower Africans to create and implement technological solutions that address the unique challenges faced by the continent.
Capital: Inclusivity is among the major issues in the digital world especially, ‘Gender Inclusivity’, and when it comes to Africa this expands even to a greater scale. How do you think we can manage it?
Anne-Rachel Inné: The global route of the internet is multi-stakeholder and has been dominated by males since day one. To change this, each person needs to participate and help people understand technology.
We have spent the whole of last month talking about gender and ICTs. Right now we are at a point where even in developed countries around 30% of people want to get off the internet because they’re tired of; being scammed, harassed, and seeing things that they don’t want to see that are really counter to what is culturally acceptable to them. If we don’t cater to all of these, we’re not going to be able to advance and this is one of the reasons why we also want young ladies coming into the tech sphere. This is because the technology right now is not right for women, and it is also because the algorithms are taught by men. We need to change that. So the biases that are ingrained you know are those of men so it is important that is brought back into the core technology so that we can really help our population, get on board and be able to use these things for development.
Girls in ICT should be encouraged to embrace it. We work with different partners including embassies and even Ambassadors who are based in Addis Ababa who have agreed that this is not enough and that they will take this to the their governments as a whole. For instance, we would like to organize girls’ ICT days in all of the schools that are here and maybe even some in the regions. The ambassadors believe that promoting ICT education among girls will help bridge the gender gap in the technology industry. They hope that the government will support their initiative and allocate resources to make it happen.
We would like to help a few schools organize it and make it part of the curriculum, so that not only girls but also boys know the reasons why this should happen. The most important details is that we should not waiting for the government to do it. Instead, private sector people, the EU, UN agencies and development partners, and ambassadors have all expressed an interest in being part of the project.
Capital: What is your view of Ethiopia’s 2025 digital plan and how is the ITU working to support the country?
Anne-Rachel Inné: We are actually right now in the process of working with the Ministry of Innovation and Technology and the Ethiopia Communication Authority (ECA) to look into ways of measuring where we are now as a nation given in 2019 we made huge efforts to achieve this digital plans by 2025. So both the ministry and authority is going to take stock of what has happened nationally, that is, in between the projects and everything that has been put together into platforms, and places like INSA and others as it’s an ecosystem. Once we know where we currently stand and identify the gaps, we will work with all of the development partners to better assess what to do next?
Ethiopia has been opening up the telecommunications sector and the regulator itself, ECA, has also put forth its national policies. For example, Ethiopia being a large country, issues of cooling fiber everywhere for connectivity do arise. One of the technologies that we can use is satellite for connectivity in a lot of remote areas, especially in northern mountain areas and in areas where it may not be easy to pull fiber. So those are the types of things for example where we will be sitting with the regulator and the ministry to look into what is needed.
We also work on national frequency allocation tables, trainings in ironical and maritime issues, and the need for countries to be aware of international regulations. To address this in particular, Ethiopia is looking at technologies such as connectivity, mapping, and working with the Universal Postal Union to connect schools and communities with postal offices. The goal is to come together and connect communities. By coming together, we can bridge the digital divide and ensure that everyone has access to the same opportunities. This will help to create a more equitable and inclusive society where everyone can thrive.
Being digital is transversal and once Ethiopia has national platforms that have everything, ECA as a regulator needs to be able to talk to electricity, water, and all of the relevant service bodies to be on the same page. This integration of digital platforms with other essential services can lead to efficient and effective delivery of services to the citizens of Ethiopia. Additionally, it can help in creating a digital ecosystem that promotes innovation and growth in the country. For this we need to build confidence and trust, and we equally need skills, infrastructure, and the young population on to be savvy.