FREETOWN, SIERRA LEONE – As computer technology becomes part of life in Africa, this small country on the west coast of the continent is still struggling to participate in the world of information and communications technology.
Only half of the country’s computer-literate community — about 17 per cent of a population of 5 million — has significant reliance on or daily contact with computers (excluding mobile phones), according to market observers.
Compared to other countries, Sierra Leone’s IT market is very small and inexperienced, said Nana Bampoe, the implementation co-ordinator of the ChildData Project, Plan International-Sierra Leone. “It’s currently limited to the sale of average-specification computers and accessories and limited consultancies. Software development, medium to complex infrastructural IT projects and developments are few and far between and mostly are externally funded and managed,” he wrote in an e-mail.
For now, institutions whose level of IT infrastructure is expected to meet certain international standards are helping ensure implementation of quality IT infrastructure, a steady growth of computer literacy and a user base. These institutions include INGOs (international nongovernmental organizations) and affiliated local NGOs, banks, ISPs, GSM operators and some governmental agencies
“IT training and development of human resource is still in its infancy and hence the thirst and quest for IT excellency, which would drive the literacy and hence demand and supply of IT to widen the market, is just beginning,” Bampoe said.
Ali Ajao, technical director at Internet service provider FGC Wireless, agreed. The amount of computer-literate people, and even phone users, is still less than 10 per cent of the population, Ajao said.
“Many people in the country are not using the Internet because they are not computer literate, the poverty level is very high and the number of Internet cafes and service providers is very minimal,” Ajao said. “It is not encouraging at all. It is for this reason that I say Sierra Leone still has a virgin IT market.”
For the IT industry to get a boost, Ajao talks about “putting appropriate measures in place,” such as having the government require schools, from elementary schools to universities, include computer courses in their curricula. This effort is one of the fastest and easiest ways to give the IT sector a boost within a short time period, he said.
The government also holds the ability to reduce tariffs on IT-related equipment, at least for a particular period of time to encourage imports, Ajao said.
Though Bampoe thinks the banking, telecom and ISP sectors will spearhead Sierra Leone’s IT growth in the next few years, Ajao suggested that cable TV could play a part, because of the technology it requires and market it targets.