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Internet Geographies: Changing Connectivities and the Potentials of Sub-Saharan Africa's Knowledge Economy

Final Report Summary - GEONET (Internet Geographies: Changing Connectivities and the Potentials of Sub-Saharan Africa's Knowledge Economy)

The GEONET project at the Oxford Internet Institute investigated the geographies, drivers, and effects of Sub-Saharan Africa’s emerging ‘information economies’. It asked whether these economies represent a new era of development, and how information and communication technologies impact on older processes of dependence, underdevelopment and economic extraversion.
Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has conventionally been characterized by stark barriers to telecommunication and information. Rates for long distance phone calls throughout SSA used to be some of the highest in the world. Internet costs and speeds similarly were out of the reach of all but the most privileged citizens. However, in the last few years, there have been radical changes to SSA’s connectivity. Fibre-optic cables have been laid throughout the continent and there are now about two hundred and sixty million Internet users and seven hundred and sixty million mobile users in the region.
This rapid transformation in the region’s connectivity has encouraged politicians, journalists, academics, and citizens to speak of an ICT-fuelled economic revolution happening on the continent. However, while much research has been conducted into the impacts of ICTs on older economic processes and practices, there remains surprisingly little research into the emergence of a new information economy in SSA. It is this research gap that the GEONET project addressed in order to understand precisely what impacts are observable, who benefits, and how these changes match up to our expectations for change.
The project tackled this broad line of enquiry by focusing on the geographies, causes, and effects of SSA’s emerging knowledge economies at this crucial moment of change. It did so by assessing three key research contexts: economic geographies of knowledge production; the gig economy and digital outsourcing; and digital entrepreneurship. Using a mixed methods approach, the project combined quantitative research on the region’s emerging knowledge economies with qualitative research about digital work practices and their implication on local economy and society for which the research fellows conducted fieldwork in urban contexts in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, and Uganda. Using this approach, the project documented the unexpected challenges and the unanticipated uses of this changing connectivity, and cut through the hype by empirically evaluating benefits and impacts of new communication technologies in SSA. .
The project achievements include two manuscripts, and several book chapters, and peer reviewed articles published in journals such as African Geographical Review; Antipode; the Annals of the Association of American Geographers; Competition and Change; Economic Geography; Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries; Environment and Planning A; Information, Communication, and Society; Information Technologies and International Development; the Journal of Development Studies; Questions de Communication; Transfer; and Review of African Political Economy. The project group has presented research findings in a number of conferences, including the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting, the Global Conference for Economic Geography, and the Development Studies Association Conference. The PI and one of the research fellows have also been selected to serve as Fellows for the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on the New Education and Work Agenda and Council on Digital Economy and Society, respectively.
The project team also organized four outreach meetings in the fieldwork sites as well as the Digital | Economy | Africa Conference at the School of Tourism and Hospitality, University of Johannesburg. This conference brought together key international experts and stakeholders and covered the themes of digital entrepreneurship, digital jobs/gig work, information economy, innovation hubs, and the changing geographies of information economy on the African continent. The discussions over the two conference days centered on the potentials and realities of African digital economies and in light of empirical evidence from all parts of the continent, critically examined the view often held by local policymakers, which sees Arica’s rapidly changing connectivities leading to changes in human welfare and economic development. The conference programme and a selection of presentations continue to be accessible on the event microsite.
Throughout the project, the research team communicated research progress and findings through blog entries on the project website and the widely read Oxford Internet Institute and the Digital Inequality group blogs. The researchers also frequently write in and have been featured in media outlets such as BBC, The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Wired, and Slate. The research advances are also frequently communicated via visualizations and microblogs on the project’s Twitter account. The project microsite and its Twitter account will remain accessible after the project has concluded.
The project established an advisory committee, which oversaw the project’s compliance with principles of ethical research and ensured that it was carried out to high standard and schedule. The advisory committee included senior academics, practitioners, and policy-makers who have extensive research experience and knowledge of ICTs and the knowledge economy in SSA. As an additional layer of ethical practice, where the project fieldwork was carried out in countries without resident Advisory Committee members, the project team additionally established a local ethical consultation process. As part of this process the project researchers consulted local experts on the project plan in order to ensure that it was appropriate for the local context.