West Africa Rising: World Bank offers Internet 'revolution' to Sierra Leone, Liberia

The World Bank’s board of directors last week approved an underwater fiber-optic cable project that promises to bring 'a major infrastructural revolution' to Liberia and Sierra Leone.

West Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.

Internet connections in the poorest corners of West Africa are sluggish at best, and they often cost 100 times more than the same service would sell for in the United States.

But that could be changing soon.

The World Bank’s board of directors approved a project on Jan. 20 that promises to bring “a major infrastructural revolution” to Liberia and Sierra Leone. The initiative will connect the two countries to an underwater fiber-optic cable that runs off their western shores, boosting the speed of connection while slashing the cost.

The World Bank money will come in the form of loans, $31 million for Sierra Leone and $25.6 million for Liberia, that will pay for the cables and other physical infrastructure needed to set up the connection. The funds will also be used to update relevant laws and regulations to make sure the process runs smoothly.

Both Liberia and Sierra Leone were engaged in their own civil wars when the underwater broadband cable that connects South Africa to Europe was laid down in the 1990s. Just last year, a project funded by the African Development Bank connected Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal via high-speed cable to Europe, but again Liberia and Sierra Leone were overlooked.

For now, the two countries connect to the Internet via satellite, which is prohibitively expensive for all but a handful of individuals and businesses.

A rather measly one-megabit-per-second connection costs between $4,000 and $5,000 per month in Sierra Leone and Liberia, compared with $100 in nearby Morocco and about $35 in the United States. The monthly price tag is more than 10 times the yearly income of the average Sierra Leonean and Liberian.

Legislators in both countries must ratify the projects before work begins, but no stumbling blocks are anticipated, says Mohamed Sheriff, who works for the World Bank in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital. If all goes according to plan, Mr. Sheriff says, the countries should be connected before the end of the year.

More than just faster downloads

Many expect the new cable to deliver more than just a faster download speed.

“A good Internet connection is a means of reaching development goals,” says Sanjay Acharya of the International Telecommunications Union in Geneva. Affordable Internet access can help farmers bypass middlemen, he says, allow sick people in rural areas to get medical care remotely, and help increase government transparency.

Studies suggest that making the Internet more accessible in developing countries can have real impacts, especially on economic productivity.

New infrastructure needed

But disseminating the faster connections across Liberia and Sierra Leone will require a staggering amount of new infrastructure, and it’s not clear that the process will happen as quickly as hoped.

Cities outside Freetown and Monrovia, the Liberian capital, rarely have electricity, let alone wiring for Internet connections. Home computers are out of the question for most, and Internet cafes charge pricey sums per hour.

Nevertheless, the arrival of the fiber-optic cable is highly anticipated by some.

“It’s going to make our business boom,” says Hawa Sesay, the sales manager of LimeLine, an Internet service provider based in Freetown. “We’re looking forward to it.”

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