United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

Paris - Despite the North-South gap, the information technology revolution has become a daily reality in many African countries, where the internet, mobile telephones and digital video cameras are being used with extraordinary creativity and versatility.

Afro@digital*, a 52-minute documentary directed by Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda** of the Congo, and produced by UNESCO, looks at the promise these new technologies hold for Africa.

"Around six years ago, when we would go to an African country to shoot a film," says Bakupa -Kinyanda, "I was totally isolated from the outside world and had to stay in a four-star hotel just to have access to a phone. There are people who have been waiting for a fixed phone line for 20 years. Then, overnight, thousands of Africans gained access to mobile phones and can now communicate with the rest of the world. This is extremely important in terms of development for the entire continent."

Statistics show that Africa is well behind the rest of the world in terms opf information technologies. But the numbers fail to show the original ways Africans are using the little that is available. Afro@digital fills this gap. The production will be screened at MITIL (the International Market for Independent and Local Broadcasters) held at Vevey (Switzerland) from June 12-15.

In Afro@digital, a marabout explains that he no longer replies by letter to questions put to him by Africans living abroad. Rather he uses his mobile phone, which he carries with him at all times. Certain of these African spiritual guides even use email to transmit their advice, their replies reaching their destination in a few seconds, instead of the several weeks it can take for a letter to cover the distance.

Another eloquent illustration of the digital revolution in Africa, is the rise of internet cafés. One such café is featured in the documentary - full of young people sending emails and browsing the web. Referred to as "Cyber teahouses" in Mauritania, these internet access centers have really caught onin a big way in many African countries. In Bamako, the capital of Mali, the number of Internet cafés increased from one to 100 within the space of a year. "In the documentary we are introduced to Oumou Sy, a Senegalese fashion designer who opened the first internet café in Dakar, which was one of the first in Africa," explains Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda. On her internet site (www.metissacana.sn), she set up a virtual boutique and can now sell her clothing in Tokyo and her jewelry in New York. It's as though she had shops in every city in the world."

In 2000, only 0.4 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa used the internet, and the obstacles to its expansion remain enormous. One researcher calculated that US$60 million would be required to connect a mere one percent of the population *** .

However, the internet café phenomenon reveals that more research is needed on the impact of new information technologies in the African continent to get a true picture of the situation. It's not just a question of counting the number of computers available, but also looking at the number of people using them, and the innovative ways in which they use them: for example the use of intenet by illiterate people, who need a third person to type their messages.

Despite the difficulties involved in developing new information technology in Africa, Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda is optimistic. "Africans have an enormous capacity to use new information technologies when they have access to them. In certain towns in Senegal and the Congo, increasing numbers are connecting to internet using a laptop computer with a mobile phone. While there is certainly a gap in Africa between available infrastructures and new information technology, I am certain this is going to change," he concludes.

Even Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda was able to shoot his documentary - 60 hours of film in eight African countries with 30 interviews - thanks to new digital cameras, which are light and relatively cheap. "With a small digital camera of professional quality we can film the cell of ex-South African President Nelson Mandela on Robben Island as though we were tourists. In addition, the people we film feel more confident, and less intimidated than they would if we were using a 16 mm camera. Digital cameraswill allow us to re-create the African collective memory," he added.

Afro@digital demonstrates that progress is being made in this direction. According to the film-maker, an effort needs to be made to "put aside the catastrophic and stereotyped vision that dominates when the subject of new technolgies and Africa comes up."

* Afro@digital, Akangbé Productions and Dipanda Yo films, with support from UNESCO, the National Communications Council, and the AIF (Agency of French-Speaking Countries).

** Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda was born on 30 October 1957 in Kinshasa. He studied sociology, history and philosophy; has lived in France, England and the United States. His two best-known fiction films are "The Draughtsmen Clash" and "Artícle 15 A".

*** Michel Berne, in "Telecom, Electronique, informatique, Médias, Internet, 2000" published by the Institut National des Télécommunications, Observatoire des Stratégies et Technologies de l'Information et de la Communication,, Evry, France 2001

Contact : Asbel Lopez, Bureau of Public Information, Editorial Section,
Tel: (+33)(0)1 45 68 47 27, Email:a.lopez@unesco.org

Source Feature No.2002-11
Publication Date 10 Jun 2002
© UNESCO 1995-2007 - ID: 3303