Gabon: A Model for Expanding Internet Access in Africa

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SEATTLE — Located in Central Africa along the Atlantic coast, Gabon is a country known for its lush mangroves and pristine rainforest. Rich in natural resources such as oil and manganese, Gabon has seen impressive economic growth over the past decade.

While this might seem like a familiar description of several burgeoning African countries, there is more to Gabon’s story than meets the eye. As oil reserves that have accounted for 80 percent of exports, 45 percent of GDP and 60 percent of budget revenue decline, Gabon has had to pursue alternative means of economic growth. Fortunately, not only has Gabon done just that, but it has been remarkably successful.

Expanding Internet Access Key to Economic Growth

In order to diversify its economy and shift dependence away from oil, Gabon has made significant strides in expanding Internet access and network coverage across the country. The Central African Backbone (CAB) project is a tremendous and innovative infrastructure initiative that intends to construct 901.8 km of fiber optic cable networks across Gabon.

The project spans beyond Gabon and integrates fiber optic infrastructure in surrounding countries, including the Central African Republic, Chad, Sao Tome and Principe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon. In integrating these neighboring countries, the information technology and communications sectors are not limited to Gabon’s borders.

The significance of this regional integration across Central Africa cannot be overstated. Expanding Internet access with fiber optic infrastructure is only the beginning. As Internet access becomes more prevalent, new markets and business sectors such as information technology, finance, banking and telecommunications can take root. This will expand opportunities for rural areas that were once outside the scope of urban centers and empower formerly marginalized communities.

Overcoming Hurdles

Connecting to the Internet incurs numerous benefits, from increased access to education to better job opportunities. It enables companies that were once limited to Gabon’s borders to reach global markets. However, building digital infrastructure is not enough to ensure greater accessibility. The more pressing obstacle is the high cost of Internet use. After all, what good is digital infrastructure if only a small percentage of people can access it? Fortunately, Gabon has paved the way in reducing cost and thus increasing accessibility.

In fact, since 2010, the cost of Internet access has fallen tenfold, decreasing from $18 per month to $2.8 per month. In addition, there has been a sevenfold increase in the number of people using the Internet in Gabon.

These incredible achievements have drawn significant foreign investment, and an addition $23 million was awarded to the CAB project in 2016. Reducing cost and expanding Internet access has enabled Gabon to further its digital transformation and fulfill its goal of becoming a Central African digital hub.

The Advantages of Internet Access

In recent years, digital technology has been instrumental in providing numerous benefits to the economies of developing countries. By affording people increased access to electronic banking, medical and administrative services, digital technology has been able to successfully bridge the gap between urban and rural areas.

The financing of digital infrastructure and data centers in Central Africa has lowered the cost of Internet fees, which will add competitiveness to regional exchanges and provide an important demonstration effect for new public and private sector infrastructure projects in the region.

Internet Access and Poverty Alleviation

According to a study by Strategy&, PwC’s strategy consulting business, increased global Internet access has the potential to lift 7 percent of the global population (500 million people) out of poverty.

Insofar as Gabon’s population is highly urbanized, with four cities containing 86 percent of Gabon’s population, greater Internet access has the potential to impact many people and bring them above the poverty line.

Given that Gabon has risen 10 places in the 2017 Internet development index world classification, Gabon has great potential to significantly reduce poverty rates moving forward. Its current and future successes can serve as a model for Africa and developing countries worldwide.

– McAfee Sheridan
Photo: Flickr

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