Thecla Mbongue (vasafrica.comworldseries.com)
Thecla Mbongue told the Broadband Summit in Bryanston, Johannesburg, that USFs were unsure of what to do with the money they collect.
She quoted International Telecommunications Union (ITU) statistics that said 25 African USFs had collected US$468 million by the end of 2010, but had spent only US$40 million by the middle of 2011.
“Out of all the money collected, less than 10 per cent has been spent,” she said. “They haven’t thought yet of what to do with it.
“What I think is astonishing is that some people can sit with money without knowing what to do with it.”
Mbongue said lack of initiative and transparency, as well as administrative slowness characterised USFs across the continent, though those managed by regulators generally proved more efficient than those run by government ministries.
She was unable to think of an example of a properly run USF on the continent however.
The priority for USFs, she said, should be in providing services that would improve the quality of life for underserved populations in the short-term.
“We have to first assess the needs of these populations and think what would be available to them,” she said. “It might not be for the USF to embark on financing big broadband networks, but first to see what is available. There could be a business case for alternative technology and alternative services.”
She highlighted SMS birth registration services in the Ivory Coast and Senegal as an example of USFs being used to provide basic government services.
“I think it should be used to provide services that the government is initially meant to be providing,” she said. “The priority for underserved populations in Africa is access to services and content that will improve their life.
“I think it is important for USF to be used to help develop platforms that would be used for the SMS platform.”
Mbongue suggested USF projects should avoid duplication and work with existing organisations. She used Nigeria’s free phones for farmers initiative as an example.
“That’s a good initiative, but I have the impression that there are too many public organisations doing initiatives solo.”
She said the government should have teamed with existing rural projects managed by country’s USF management board.