The years since the start of the new millennium have seen an impressive growth in Internet and mobile cellular penetration in Africa, a feat which not only helped in the efforts to meet the MDGs but also constitutes an essential ingredient in the post 2015 development agenda. In this article, Houlin Zhao, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), discusses the successes Africa is achieving in applying the benefits of ICT to solve the challenges people face in their day to day lives.


In the decade and a half since the beginning of the new millennium, Africa has made tremendous progress in many areas and in particular towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). ITU has good empirical evidence for this because it is part of the Inter-Agency Expert Group (IAEG) on MDG Indicators which is in charge of producing data for each of the eight MDGs. Based on relevant targets and indicators, this data is used to evaluate the progress of the MDGs and to produce the UN Secretary-General’s annual MDG Report. ITU hosted the 24th IAEG Meeting on MDG Indicators in October 2013 in Geneva.

ITU is also a member of the Working Group on ‘Monitoring and Indicators’ of the UN System Task Team on the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda, which was set up in January 2012. Led by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) and the United

Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Task Team brings together over 60 UN system entities. Its main objective is to identify a unified development agenda for the post-2015 period.

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ITU is the agency which measures MDG target 8F of Goal 8 – ‘Develop a global partnership for development: In cooperation with the private sector, make available the benefits of new technologies, especially information and communications’. In fulfilling this role, ITU monitors and reports on the three indicators that were identified to track this target: fixed-telephone subscriptions per 100 inhabitants; mobile-cellular subscriptions per 100 inhabitants; and Internet users per 100 inhabitants.

Fixed telephone penetration, the first indicator, declined from 1.4 per cent at the end of the year 2000 to 1.3 per cent by the end of 2014, according to ITU estimates, but this decline is barely relevant in the face of the quite extraordinary progress achieved in the second and third indicators: over the same period, from 2000 to 2014, mobile cellular penetration in Africa grew from 1.8 per cent to 69.3 per cent, and Internet penetration grew from 0.5 per cent to 19 per cent – meaning that over 170 million people across Africa are now online.

Many African countries have performed admirably in applying the benefits of ICTs towards meeting the MDGs. Africa is the fastest-growing region in the world in terms of mobile broadband growth, and the continent is applying the technology in developing home-grown and custom-made solutions to resolve day-to-day issues.

To cite one example, Mobile Money has turned out to be a killer-app in bringing financial services to Africa’s unbanked via mobile phones. This was an African solution for an African problem, where only a handful of people have bank accounts, but are well-connected in terms of mobile devices. As a result they are now able to trade and to pay one another through mobile financial transactions, which have gone a long way to reducing poverty at the bottom of the pyramid. ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau (TSB) has created a focus group to put together recommendations that would, among other things, ensure a sustainable and enabling regulatory environment for cross-border trade and money transfers.

Africa has also been making positive efforts towards meeting MDG 6: ‘Combat HIV/Aids, malaria and other diseases’. Rwanda’s TRACnet is a surveillance and monitoring system for HIV/AIDS where community health workers in rural health centres are able to use simple mobile phones to register people living with HIV/AIDS, those taking anti-retroviral drugs, and any adverse reactions to the medicines, as well as querying the central database to check stock and reorder levels, in order to avoid running out of vital medicines. The system is being replicated across the continent and extended to the surveillance and monitoring of other diseases, including malaria and tuberculosis.

Additionally, ITU has also deployed satellite terminals to support ongoing efforts to facilitate the effective deployment of ICTs for addressing the Ebola crisis, while balancing this with the need to protect consumer privacy. In particular, ITU’s ‘Ebola-Info-Sharing’ mobile app has been developed to improve awareness-raising efforts, facilitate early warning alerts, report new cases of infection, and support coordination of humanitarian action at the community, country and regional level.

Another initiative is ‘Smart Water Management’, where ITU aims to help people use ICTs to prevent wastage of this vital and valuable resource in Africa. In Niger, which is mostly desert, systems are already in place which monitor soil humidity before activating or deactivating irrigation via mobile phones, according to variable parameters.

Each of these innovations is good for whole populations but has specifically empowered and benefitted women and girls in important ways. In Africa, not only do women constitute the highest number of the unbanked, but they also play the greatest part in cross-border trade, especially of agricultural produce. Women and girls are also the cornerstone of family life, and therefore the modernization of health systems, especially in the management of those living with HIV/AIDS, has been critical to women. Women also constitute the majority of subsistence farmers, so systems that help manage water and control irrigation ensure a better quality of life.

ITU also endeavours to empower and encourage girls and young women to study sciences and join the ICT industry. On 23 April 2015, we once again celebrated our annual International Girls in ICT Day, which falls on the fourth Thursday in April – the fourth day of the fourth week of the fourth month. Since the event was initiated, in 2011, we have seen well over 4,000 events organized in over 150 countries, reaching at least 120,000 girls.

For my own part, as ITU Secretary-General, I am proud to co-chair, with the African Union Commission, the Steering Committee of the SMART Africa initiative which was endorsed by the African Union Assembly of Heads of State and Government, and which seeks to put ICTs at the centre of Africa’s development agenda. It is also based on ITU Resolution 195 (Busan, 2014), which calls on ITU to help implement the SMART Africa Manifesto, and instructs me to engage the different UN agencies to support various components of the SMART Africa programmes, in areas within their scope and mandates.

The SMART Africa initiative works towards the creation of Smart Cities and Communities, the Green Economy, Digital Literacy, Data and Measurement for Development, Youth Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Capacity Building, the Digital Economy, ICT Industry Development and other important development goals. These are some of the SMART Africa Flagship Initiatives, each of which is championed by African Heads of State for the African continent, and which will provide an important support platform for the post-2015 sustainable development agenda in Africa. ITU will no doubt play an important role in the planning and implementation of these initiatives, ensuring long-term sustainability.

Finally, a global agenda to shape the future of the ICT sector was unanimously adopted by the international community at the 19th ITU Plenipotentiary Conference (PP-14). This agenda is embodied in Resolution 200 ‘Connect 2020 Agenda for global telecommunication technology development’, which sets out a shared vision, goals and targets that ITU Member States have committed themselves to achieve by 2020 in collaboration with all stakeholders across the ICT ecosystem. The roll-out of the Connect 2020 Agenda will gather pace across the world, laying the groundwork for full mobilization of the global ICT sector, concentrated on the implementation of specific and measurable targets towards the 2020 horizon.

Member States are invited to participate actively in implementing the Connect 2020 Agenda, and to contribute with national, regional and international initiatives. In particular, looking at the ICT – and especially the mobile broadband – revolution in Africa, and the enormous potential for growth, it would make clear sense for operators and investors to enter into and to drive the market. There is tremendous work to be done in infrastructure development, ICT industry development and more – and it is clear that the manufacturing of suitable and affordable ICT devices would multiply the consumer market instantly. Already, smart young men and women in Africa are developing apps for almost anything in their environment, and that can only be good for the economy. Addressing the energy shortage – especially for ICT devices themselves – would also help to grow the market tremendously.

Africa’s growing interest in Cloud Computing, Big Data and the Internet of Things (IoT), and its clear determination to migrate from analogue to digital broadcasting, with the aim of using the resulting digital dividend spectrum for new mobile services in particular, is all indicative of the potential of ICTs for sustainable development in Africa beyond 2015.

The increased maturity of regulatory authorities, and the trend towards licensing converged technologies and services, the diversification in operators’ businesses to go beyond voice and venture into financial and media services, and the increased innovation and entrepreneurship among young people, is all leading to an explosion of Small- and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) across Africa, and this clearly signals great hope for the continent.

Indeed, SMEs are increasingly an essential part of all developing countries’ economies, and in the ICT sector in particular they are harnessing the power of mobile and the Internet to deliver local solutions to local problems in local communities. A number of Member States have asked ITU to explore ways of supporting countries’ national innovation ecosystems, to help SME growth and development, and in particular to create a new platform where SMEs can be brought together by their national administration to showcase what they have to offer, and to broaden their markets at the international level. I am therefore inviting all ITU Member States to showcase their initiatives aimed at promoting ICT SMEs at ITU Telecom World 2015, which is taking place in Budapest, Hungary, from 12 to 15 October, with the view of establishing a platform that will allow the promotion of partnerships between governments, private sector organizations, investors and entrepreneurs for accelerated innovation.

ITU is delighted to be associated with this history in the making.