An e-world apart

Developing the Internet in poor countries can be a difficult business.

©Tom Gilks / Alamy

Stephan-Noël looks anxiously about the hut at the computer terminals. Through the walls of thatch drifts the faint, pervasive scent of vanilla. A girl saunters in, her face painted with the saffron used by Malagasy women both as make-up and protection against the sun. Stephan-Noël exchanges a few words with her, but his mind is on the eventuality of a connection break.

At the computer terminal in the corner, another girl chats into a headset. She is a rarity here; most of the clients are vazaha, the Malagasy term for whites. At 150 ariary per minute, 15 minutes online costs the equivalent of 90 eurocents, a negligible sum for the vazaha, most of whom are tourists. But for the Malagasy in this region, whose average monthly salary is 70,000 ariary, 15 minutes online is a day’s earnings.

“I try to keep the price down,” says Stephan- Noël. The 29-year-old graduate from a technical institute in Mahajanga opened the only cybercafé in Ambatoloaka five weeks ago. The village is located on Nosy Bé, one in a clutch of small islands that form the ragged dorsal of Madagascar’s northwest coast.

Frequent connection breaks mean that customers, for the most part tourists, are unlikely to linger online, and if there is a break, they still have to pay. Fortunately, Ambatoloaka is spared Madagascar’s legendary power cuts. Villagers rely on private generators, candles or nothing at all. At night, families eat dinner in front of their shacks, a single candle illuminating the table; others squat in darkness on the kerb. Most of the generators power Ambatoloaka’s few restaurants and bars.

Running a generator all day adds up. Stephan-Noël spends 14,000 ariary per day for the five litres of fuel necessary to power his six computers. While he admits he could save money by starting the generator only when a customer arrives, customers tend to grow impatient waiting until the computers can be booted, and leave. They may drive–or walk–the 10 kilometres to Hellville, the island capital named after a French admiral. “Hellville has three–no four, I think–cybercafés.” One reason Stephan-Noël set up in Ambatoloaka was the absence of competitors. The cybercafés in Hellville also have wider screens, which customers prefer. “But they’re more expensive,” he says.

At the mention of broadband, he just smiles. “No, it’s not broadband. But there is talk of installing DSL wireless.” There is a hint of resignation in his voice, as if he doesn’t want to get his hopes up.

Stephan-Noël bought his terminals used, for 900,000 ariary (€360) each. Not with his own money–loans are difficult to get–but with that of his German backer. (According to the 2007 OECD African Economic Outlook, credit to the private sector was only 10% of Madagascar’s GDP last year, compared to 14.8% of other low-income countries.) How many investors in Internet are foreign? “All,” he answers, without hesitation. The Malagasy, he says, lack confidence. It is a word he uses often, always in the sense of there not being enough of it.

He has failed to interest local hotels, though the island is a growing tourist destination. “I think the biggest problem is education. Most people here do not know how to use a computer.” Only five in 1,000 Malagasy use the Internet, according to an OECD report on Africa. The figure is unsurprising. A jaunt from Ambatoloaka to Hellville in one of the old Renault 4L’s the Malagasy are adept at keeping on the road, gives little reason to believe that technology has reached this area. Families live on subsistence farming, growing rice, vanilla and ylangylang (used in perfumes); zebu provides both meat and transport.

To entice customers, Stephan-Noël offers free tutoring in computer literacy. He himself counts among the handful of Malagasy to have completed more than secondary education. Compared to other developing countries, Madagascar ranks among the lowest in the world. Just 7% of children are in school by the time they reach the ages of 15-18, and only about four out of 1,000 go on to higher education. Poverty and illness are the chief reasons. A local teacher says that during the rainy season, many children are too sick with diarrhoea and malaria to attend school.

Governance issues have been the biggest deterrent to investment in Madagascar, even more than its lack of infrastructure. Among the 178 countries ranked by the World Bank according to the ease of doing business, Madagascar rates a discouraging 149. Entrepreneurs like Stephan-Noël struggle to revive confidence withered by decades of poor governance and corruption. This business climate has sharpened the traditional prudence of the Malagasy, for whom tsiny–a concept denoting the permanent sense of guilt that imbues Malagasy culture–dictates behaviour. A Malagasy proverb states “When I and another man enter a forest, he is my assurance, and I am his.” Once Stephan-Noël and others like him find that assurance, they will be halfway out of the woods.  LT



  • OECD (2007), African Economic Outlook 2006/2007 (new 2007/2008 edition now available), Paris.

©OECD Observer No 268 June 2008

Economic data

GDP growth: +0.6% Q1 2019 year-on-year
Consumer price inflation: 2.3% May 2019 annual
Trade: +0.4% exp, -1.2% imp, Q1 2019
Unemployment: 5.2% July 2019
Last update: 8 July 2019

OECD Observer Newsletter

Stay up-to-date with the latest news from the OECD by signing up for our e-newsletter :

Twitter feed

Subscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To order your own paper editions,email

Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • MCM logo
  • The following communiqué and Chair’s statement were issued at the close of the OECD Council Meeting at Ministerial level, this year presided by the Slovak Republic.
  • Food production will suffer some of the most immediate and brutal effects of climate change, with some regions of the world suffering far more than others. Only through unhindered global trade can we ensure that high-quality, nutritious food reaches those who need it most, Angel Gurría, Secretary-General of the OECD, and José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, write in their latest Project Syndicate article. Read the article here.
  • Globalisation will continue and get stronger, and how to harness it is the great challenge, says OECD Secretary-General Gurría on Bloomberg TV. Watch the interview here.
  • OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría with UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly, in New York City.
  • The new OECD Observer Crossword, with Myles Mellor. Try it online!
  • Listen to the "Robots are coming for our jobs" episode of The Guardian's "Chips with Everything podcast", in which The Guardian’s economics editor, Larry Elliott, and Jeremy Wyatt, a professor of robotics and artificial intelligence at the University of Birmingham, and Jordan Erica Webber, freelance journalist, discuss the findings of the new OECD report "Automation, skills use and training". Listen here.
  • Do we really know the difference between right and wrong? Alison Taylor of BSR and Susan Hawley of Corruption Watch tell us why it matters to play by the rules. Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview here.
  • Has public decision-making been hijacked by a privileged few? Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview with Stav Shaffir, MK (Zionist Union) Chair of the Knesset Committee on Transparency here.
  • Can a nudge help us make more ethical decisions? Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview with Saugatto Datta, managing director at ideas42 here.
  • The fight against tax evasion is gaining further momentum as Barbados, Côte d’Ivoire, Jamaica, Malaysia, Panama and Tunisia signed the BEPS Multilateral Convention on 24 January, bringing the total number of signatories to 78. The Convention strengthens existing tax treaties and reduces opportunities for tax avoidance by multinational enterprises.
  • Globalisation’s many benefits have been unequally shared, and public policy has struggled to keep up with a rapidly-shifting world. The OECD is working alongside governments and international organisations to help improve and harness the gains while tackling the root causes of inequality, and ensuring a level playing field globally. Please watch.
  • Checking out the job situation with the OECD scoreboard of labour market performances: do you want to know how your country compares with neighbours and competitors on income levels or employment?
  • Trade is an important point of focus in today’s international economy. This video presents facts and statistics from OECD’s most recent publications on this topic.
  • The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. The gender portal monitors the progress made by governments to promote gender equality in both OECD and non-OECD countries and provides good practices based on analytical tools and reliable data.
  • Interested in a career in Paris at the OECD? The OECD is a major international organisation, with a mission to build better policies for better lives. With our hub based in one of the world's global cities and offices across continents, find out more at .
  • Visit the OECD Gender Data Portal. Selected indicators shedding light on gender inequalities in education, employment and entrepreneurship.

Most Popular Articles

OECD Insights Blog

NOTE: All signed articles in the OECD Observer express the opinions of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the official views of OECD member countries.

All rights reserved. OECD 2019