“Smart villages” are defined as the rural answer to globalisation. They let people meet their basic needs, connect them to others and open business opportunities.
Affordable digital connectivity and electricity are the two most important elements needed to transform rural Africa. What good is a smart phone without internet access or power to recharge it? Solar power has tremendous potential as an affordable energy source.
Smart villages must also include digital literacy.
Rwanda is a digital model: 97 % of government services can only be requested online and blood is delivered to hospitals using drones.
A “smart village” applies connectivity and energy to meet basic needs, improve local economies and livelihoods, and foster entrepreneurship, said Laila El Hankari, business development director at Orange. Some 70 % of Africans live in rural areas and many are without electricity. Smart villages are their answer.
Only 20 % of people living in rural Africa have electricity and 50% of them are not reached by digital connectivity, noted Christine Leurquin, vice president, Institutional Relations, Société Européenne des Satellites (SES), a company that “connects the unconnected”. Connectivity ensures options, such as staying in a village rather than moving to a city. Energy goes hand-in-hand with connectivity. Satellites may help reduce costs and increase speed, said Leurquin, lowering the cost of connectivity 10-fold.
The private sector has a role to play and it must work with local operators to empower citizens. For example, SES helped Burkina Faso during its 2012 and 2015 elections with satellite connectivity so citizens from all areas could vote and results could be tallied within a day.
Maguette Mbow, CEO of an e-platform called L’Afrique C’est Chic World, said solar energy has big potential along with video e-learning. But all digital platforms must be culturally adapted.
Public-private partnerships and decentralized cooperation are also key to reach most remote villages. Moreover, government policy reforms must prioritise digital development. African governments must have policies to support smart villages and business-friendly economies.
Improved, sustainable connectivity will help Africa meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, said Joachim Goeske, head of Global Policy, GIZ. Being connected is not just about internet access, but also connecting people and getting meaningful results. Imagine a future where e-health services can save lives in remote areas, women can launch e-businesses, farmer can harvest agricultural tips and students can get online diplomas.
Claudette Irere, Permanent Secretary of Rwanda’s Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (ICT), said her country was turning itself into a visionary continental leader with ICT. Some 97 % government services can only be requested online and the private sector has been brought along at same time. It even delivers blood to remote hospitals via drones. But while the country has 96 % coverage, usage is low. It is like walking on a newly built highway. To increase usage, Rwanda must localise content and give citizens digital skills.
Reliable, fast internet access equalises geographies, genders and people of all ages in terms of e-commerce, e-education, communication and more. But low-cost energy, like solar power, and digital literacy must go together with digital connectivity.