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

Mid-Term 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 (OII) investigates the geographies, drivers, and effects of Sub-Saharan Africa’s emerging ‘information economies.’ It asks 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 traditionally been characterised by stark barriers to telecommunication and flows of 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 international connectivity. Fibre-optic cables have been laid throughout the continent and there are now about one hundred million Internet users and over seven hundred 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 informationalised economy in SSA. It is now that we need empirical research to understand precisely what impacts are observable, who benefits, and how these changes match up to our expectations for change.

The project tackles this broad line of inquiry by focusing on the geographies, causes, and effects of SSA’s emerging knowledge economies at this crucial moment of change. It does 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 documents the unexpected challenges and the unanticipated uses of this changing connectivity, and will cut through the hype by empirically evaluating benefits and impacts of new communication technologies in SSA.

The project achievements include peer-reviewed articles, which are forthcoming in journals such as the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Transfer, the Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries and in Information Technologies & International Development. Various other articles are also currently under preparation. 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 first stretch of project fieldwork has started in South Africa and Kenya. The objective of the fieldwork is to collect information about digital work practices and emerging geographies of knowledge economy and its implication on local economy and local people in the urban contexts of Johannesburg and Nairobi.

The project group communicates research progress and findings through blog entries on the project website and in the widely read OII Policy and Internet and the Connectivity, Inclusion, and Inequality Research Cluster blogs. The researchers 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 advancements are also frequently communicated via visualizations and microblogs through the project’s Twitter account.

The project has also established an advisory committee, which oversees the project’s compliance with principles of ethical research and ensures that it is carried out to high standard and to schedule. The advisory committee includes senior academics, practitioners, and policy-makers who have extensive research experience and knowledge of ICTs and the knowledge economy in SSA.