Friday, September 07, 2007

In a world of .com and .org, why not .Africa?

During the march ICANN meetings in Lisbon I happened in on an interesting presentation. Around the hall sat a group of Africa’s true Internet leaders – entrepreneurs, Government representatives and NGO heads. They were intently listening to a plan aimed at creating a special domain for the continent –.africa. And as I listened and learned more, I came to believe that .africa is an idea whose time has come.

While we here in the United States and Europe are typically focused on the more widely known, content-based, “generic” top-level domains – .com for companies (like www.yahoo.com), .org for NGOs, or .edu for universities to name a few – in recent years there has been significant growth in the number of options “after the dot”.

Many country-specific domains (or ccTLDs as they are called) have become popular in larger markets like Germany (.de) and the UK (.uk). In South Africa, a large number of companies have chosen .za addresses to emphasize their connection to the country and the local economy. In fact, nearly every country or similar geographic entity, large or small, has its own ccTLD – from Russia to Christmas Island.

So I suppose it was only a matter of time until someone decided to focus on the opposite trend – the coming together of countries for economic and political integration. It was in this context that new pan-European (.eu) and pan-Asian (.asia) domains were launched, with an eye toward companies and organizations that wish to work with those entire continents. The domains are organized on a non-profit basis, with an aim of enhancing regional identity and regional dynamism on the net. And it is in a similar vein that .africa is being proposed.

However, in Africa I would argue that the idea is even more important.

Why .africa? There are a number of reasons. First and foremost, there is the increasing trend of economic and political integration. What started more than 50 years ago as a dream of leaders like Nkrumah, Senghor and Kenyatta is now becoming more possible than ever, in part because of the web. Cross-border communications are simpler. E-commerce and e-banking is now possible. And at least in theory, the chance to work together, share knowledge and avoid misunderstandings is at our fingertips through the Internet. If we are serious about real political and economic integration, we will need to use technology like never before, and .africa could play a big role.

At the same time, for investors – whether Africans or others interested in investing in Africa – there is power in the idea of having an African address. The way I see it, Google.africa would be more than a website. It would be a statement of intent, of the desire to build a real Africa-oriented business on the continent. And since realistically it would be impossible for all but the largest corporations to have websites covering all of the 50-plus African ccTLDs (many of which are still in development anyway), .africa could provide an Africa-oriented web presence perfect for firms with regional or continental growth aspirations. A .africa address could provide a one-stop entry point for vendors interested in selling to and working with the African market.

Finally, .africa would be run as a non-profit with a strong focus on building an African Internet community, and I can see tremendous benefits for Africans – both on the continent and especially in the diaspora. A .africa domain could be a meeting place aimed at promoting trade and skills development, a place to build cultural connection and help preserve traditions, and a way to bring Africans together wherever they live around the world. It could provide a safe place to discuss and ultimately tackle crucial issues of gender, ethnicity and development. And, looking at early evidence from the .eu experience, it seems unlikely that a new .africa domain would significantly reduce demand for African ccTLDs – in fact, .africa could help the ccTLDs over the long run by bringing more eyes to the “African Internet.”

According to Sophia Bekele, an Ethiopian/US IT business executive and initiator of the project, already the program is moving fast. The UN Economic Commission for Africa has come out supporting the initiative, as have a number of Governments. Three large registries – companies that might “host” a .africa domain – have come forward to express interest in bidding on the contract to provide finance and service. The initiative is likely to be voted on by the ICANN Board (that would need to approve the new designation) within six months, and you can show your support by sending email to support.dotafrica@gmail.com, or participating at an online discussion at http://dotafrica.blogspot.com/.

Some will no doubt say that this is a pipe dream, or worse, a waste of Africa’s time. They will argue that the Internet doesn’t matter on the continent since infrastructure and access are limited. But I would argue just the opposite. ICT is growing in Africa like few places on earth, even with the infrastructural and political challenges the continent faces. And the future is coming, ready or not, and a big part of that future – especially if we have any hopes for regional integration – will be taking place on the web.

Within the year we could see the start of a new Internet era in Africa, the .africa era. Now is the time.

1 comment:

g. kofi annan said...

The .Africa idea is one I haven't heard of yet. It seems like it would be a good way to centralize the somewhat fragmented African internet community.