Sierra Leone has just been connected to its first high-speed fibre optic internet cable. With it come promises of economic and social development in a post-conflict nation with a heavy reliance on foreign aid.
Sierra Leone was passed over by several West African high-speed cable projects while in the midst of a devastating eleven-year civil war. The war ended in 2002, leaving the economy and infrastructure in ruins.
Sierra Leone’s Information Minister I.B. Kargbo says that as a post-conflict nation relying on foreign aid dollars, local business is suffering without a modern connection to the outside world.
“It was not an unwillingness on our part to be part of the process but because at the time the country was simply unstable for that purpose,” said Kargbo. “In terms of investment, it has affected the business community. We would have loved to see Internet and other aspects of telecommunications in the rural areas, in the schools and the universities.”
The Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) submarine cable arrived in Freetown on October 10. It links twenty-three countries down the Atlantic coast from France to South Africa.
This 22 million euro project is funded by the World Bank. Country director Vijay Pillai says high-speed projects elsewhere have led to improvements in business, finance and governance.
“Evidence from several countries has been that providing broadband internet increases economic productivity, and I think that will clearly generate more revenues for the government, it will generate more investments for the private sector, so it is a way of boosting economic growth of the country,” said Pillai.
For now, Internet connection in Sierra Leone is slow, unreliable and expensive. Pillai says the cost averages 10 times that of East Africa and 25 times that of the United States.
Ian Perry owns a video-editing business from his one-room shop in Freetown. He says it can take him hours to download a single piece of music for his projects.
“I can’t spend the whole day trying to get just a little bit of information from the Internet. That is not possible,” said Perry. “It’s like, the faster the service, the more money we will make.”
The cable will not become operational at least until February of 2012, when all the countries are connected.
Amnesty International recently released a report on Sierra Leone’s Free Healthcare Program. Health Policy Coordinator Rajat Kosla says poor Internet connection has hurt the program because clinics are constantly running out of drugs because they use an online procurement system.
“In Sierra Leone, in the given circumstances, it’s a struggle, and it is a struggle that is leading to constant stock-outs and requisitions not being made in the right manner.”
Information Minister Kargbo says outside of Freetown it may take years before the service reaches the country’s even poorer rural interior.
“Connecting the facility to the rest of the country, that is a historic development. It will continue on and on and on. But of course we want to be very certain that we meet our 2015 Millennium Development Goals. Whether it is possible is to be seen.”