What’s next for digital acceleration in the Republic of Congo
Yvon Didier Miehakanda, Senior Consultant, World Bank Digital Development Global Practice
Fourteen years ago (a long time in the digital world), I visited the Republic of Congo. But my trip was cut short by the country’s lack of connectivity. The Republic of Congo had a 2G mobile network, but it was virtually impossible— or extremely time consuming– to download emails, surf the web, or even use chat apps. Since I couldn’t be completely cut off from the rest of the world, I had to leave the country earlier than I’d planned.
Since then, private companies, the government, and its partners, including the World Bank, have invested extensively in the Congo’s digital infrastructure, leveraging on the private sector. These investments were first in 3G, then in 4G, and in mobile and fiber optic networks. And I’ve been a part of that work. During the last decade, I have had the privilege of helping lead the first World Bank-financed digital economy project (called CAB3), which ended in 2017. I witnessed dramatic changes in connectivity with my own eyes.
Today, 89% of the country has broadband coverage, and more than 62% of the people use the internet. Walking the streets of Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire, the Congo’s main two cities, smartphones and tablets are now as ubiquitous as they are in many other places around in the world.
The countryside needs more attention
The Republic of Congo is a mid-level income country and one of the most urbanized nations in Africa, with over 65% of the population living in cities. But the country’s success in connecting city dwellers is undercut by its digital divides , whether they are location (rural vs urban), or gender based. Tackling this issue is the next big challenge. Everyone, everywhere, must be able to benefit from a vibrant and safe digital economy. Technical solutions designed specifically for rural areas are now available. We call them low-cost connectivity systems. These networks rely on antennas rather than towers, which are easier to put in, and can be used by various mobile operators through what’s known as ‘rural area network’ sharing technology. In a nutshell, the infrastructure work is simplified, the deployment does not require any machinery and can be installed in as little as two days. Low cost does not at all mean inefficient or degraded services. It means more cost-effective and sustainable investment, such as solar-powered base stations, driven by the fact that there are simply fewer people per kilometer. It works. Isolated areas become connected. Trade is facilitated. Improved communications mean fewer long trips. And we prioritize vulnerable populations when working on these solutions.
Local content for local users
Affordable and good quality broadband infrastructure is the cornerstone of the digital economy. However, people tend to believe that once the infrastructure is in place, once everybody can potentially access broadband, the work is finished . Nothing could be further from the truth. Two things will still prevent people from using the internet. One is that people everywhere, regardless of where they live, gender, social status, and age, still need to be trained in how to use the internet. And the second is that they need local content specifically designed for their interests, demands, and language. Plenty of people have access to the internet. But they don’t use it because of lack of skills and knowledge.
Great objectives and great expectations
That’s why the January 2023 launch of the Congo Digital Acceleration Project was such a big event. The project focuses on rural connectivity and the government’s ability to provide digital services. I was amazed—and pleased– at the number of attendees and, more importantly, at their diversity. Cabinet ministers came, but also members of civil society, corporate and business leaders, students, public servants and average citizens. You could feel the enthusiasm in the air. People were excited that this project would bring them new tools and services, like access to e-government services for individuals and businesses, as well as financial apps (e-business), and online banking.
One small business owner living in a remote village traveled a far distance to attend the event. He told me that with newly available connectivity in his town, his revenue has increased, and now he can order and sell his products without having to move away. Then he asked me eagerly when he would be able to use his new tablet to see his grandchildren through video chat, who live in the city.
As the Congo’s Minister of Digital Economy said, this work is not just about telecommunications. It is about transforming the lives of Congolese people and letting them reap the full benefits of technology in sectors as diverse as finance, health, education, transportation, justice, housing, security, and more. The objective behind the project is simple: transactions such as requesting civil registration documents, consulting a doctor, or locating school curriculum should be as easy as a few clicks…for all.