As Ebola erupted across West Africa, government agencies, international health organizations and donors scrambled to gather and share critical information about the epidemic. Early warning signs of the outbreak had largely been missed, in part because the first cases emerged in rural areas where information telecommunications infrastructure is weak and broadband connectivity non-existent. This lack of communications capability also left rural health workers isolated – lacking information about the nature of the epidemic and effective treatment. While NGOs such as Inveneo and NetHope have since been able to deliver critical connectivity support – mostly in the form of satellite connections – to many clinics and communities, these efforts are short-term, temporary fixes and not intended to address the region’s long-term challenges in delivering connectivity to West Africa’s ‘last mile.’
As the immediate epidemic subsides, it is essential that the focus shift from crisis response to addressing longer-term needs in rural West Africa. Clearly, communications infrastructure is critical for enabling an effective early response to an outbreak. Moreover, reliable ICT infrastructure, will not only facilitate effective outbreak response, it will have a demonstrable impact on a country’s economic growth.
While the need is clear, investment in ICT infrastructure is low across the region and virtually non-existent in rural areas. Public sector funds –whether host government or donor – are simply insufficient to meet West Africa’s broadband needs. Therefore, to meet this challenge, private investment will be essential. Only the private sector can mobilize the financial resources and technologies needed to connect poor, outlying communities in West Africa. Only the private sector can develop and scale the business models needed to maintain the infrastructure. However, private investors are wary of wading into small low-income markets with uncertain regulatory regimes. Therefore, there is a critical need for public-private partnerships to ‘crowd-in’ private investment in West Africa’s Last Mile. Here are a few ways – some innovative, some proven – that donors and governments can collaborate with the private sector to drive investment:
- Project Preparation. Feasibility studies, environmental impact assessments, regulatory reviews are all significant pre-investment costs and often represent a major impediment to private investment in the region. Here, donors can catalyze investment in ICT infrastructure by funding these upfront costs for promising ICT projects. Examples such as the Agricultural Fast Track Fund show the potential of project preparation to unlock investment for undercapitalized industries in the region.
- De-Risk Investments. Credit guarantees such as USAID’s Development Credit Authority, political risk insurance from OPIC and first loss positions can be instrumental in de-risking private investment in the region’s rural ICT infrastructure. Here, innovative approaches to leveraging existing universal service funds (USFs) could unlock large amounts of capital investment for broadband.
- Pilot and Accelerate New Business Models. Existing ICT access business models may not be effective in rural West Africa – one of the world’s poorest regions. Here, impact investors can make small investments to capitalize and support African entrepreneurs to pilot new business models for testing, proving, and scaling promising technology platforms to demonstrate development and business value, while helping to create the market base needed to justify an investment.
- Technical Assistance for policymakers. A key constraint in many countries is a weak policy environment. Here, technical assistance for regulatory authorities and policy makers can enhance the attractiveness of a market for investors.
By partnering with the private sector, donors, foundations and governments can mobilize capital to address West Africa’s ICT infrastructure deficit. Doing so will not only better prepare the region for future disease outbreaks, it will also lay the groundwork for a more sustainable ICT ecosystem that serves rural West Africa’s social and economic development long into the future.