Connecting Africans to Web potential

A laptop at a web cafe fails to get online.

TEXT OF STORY

Gretchen Wilson: Today, technology experts are meeting with leaders of 10 African countries in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. It's the Connect Africa Summit. The goal is to increase the continent's access to the Internet, and attract investment opportunities for economic growth. Gretchen Wilson reports from rural South Africa.


Gretchen Wilson: On the side of the road, 20-year-old Esther Tlou sells plastic gas cans all day. The high-school graduate earns about 2 bucks a day.

She's business-minded, though -- she still pores over her old accounting textbooks, and to save money, she sleeps here in the open. That's where she dreams of different kind of work.

Esther Tlou: I'm doing computer.

Wilson: What would you like to do with computers?

Tlou: Just know how to use it.

Tlou is typical of those caught in Africa's massive digital divide. On this continent with nearly a billion people, only 4 percent have Internet access. Those few tend to be the elite. In this environment, computers can be synonymous with life rings that rescue people from poverty.

That's why African presidents, information ministers, and multinational companies are meeting today. They say the main goal is to use technology to create jobs.

For companies like Microsoft, it's also an opportunity to unlock new markets.

Orlando Ayala is senior vice president at Microsoft, one of the many U.S. firms attending the conference:

Orlando Ayala: We do believe that we empower people, we get them productive, eventually they will turn into consumers.

Microsoft's Unlimited Potential project is focused on the 5 billion people in the world that don't yet have access to computers. Ayala says it's a watershed moment to promote economic opportunity in the developing world.

Ayala: Frankly, this generation in the history of humankind, perhaps is the best positioned to ensure that the great advances in technologies -- like the Internet, computers, phones -- get in the hands of everybody else.

Greater access to those technologies is key to Esther Tlou's dreams of better work.

Tlou: Because when I'm going to find work, there is a computer inside, and I don't have a computer.

The meeting will also look at making computers more affordable for people like Tlou. Right now, it would take her five days' work to buy one hour of Internet access. The closest Internet cafe is 20 miles away.

At the South Africa-Zimbabwe border, I'm Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.

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