International submarine fiber optic cables traverse many of the same routes that sailing ships followed in centuries gone by. In one sense, that’s not such a surprise. If goods move between the U.S. and Britain, say, then information is going to flow that way to something like the same extent. Even so, an interactive graphic on Vox.com brings that relationship to life in a fascinating way, by combining a shipping map from 1912 with the latest edition of Telegeograhy’s submarine cable wall map, published retro-style with everything except Here be Dragons included.
It also says something about the way the world has changed in the past century. In 1912, transatlantic trade routes also included regular service between commercial centers of colonial empires. Those kinds of direct connections to developing countries are much rarer today. Cable routes are now centered on the U.S. and a handful of other hubs in developed nations, although that’s slowly changing, partly due to growing demand and partly to concerns about any particular country having too much control over, and access to, international data traffic.
One of the exceptions is the Atlantis-2 cable that links Brazil and Cape Verde Islands with former coloniser Portugal, as well as locations on the African continent. A new route, the South Atlantic Cable System, is slated for 2017 and would bring lusaphone Angola into the fold. Other cables are planned between Brazil and South Africa, and directly to Portugal, again following centuries old trade routes.
If you want to know where submarine fiber is likely to be laid over the next decade, just pull out an old sailing chart.
Steve Blum, Tellus Venture Associates, doing project due diligence in HuamboTelecommunications and transportation make the difference between subsistence farming and sustainable commercial agriculture in Angola’s Huambo province, where Tellus Venture Associates is supporting a development project through Rotary International. The physical infrastructure was obliterated during nearly 30 years of civil war, but mobile phone applications could soon provide a life-saving solution.
Potatoes sold in Huambo might earn $175 per ton, but could fetch $500 or more per ton in coastal markets, hundreds of kilometers away. Using fertilizer and improved seed varieties, a smallholder farmer might produce 2.5 tons per crop. But that seed and fertilizer costs about $375, which means selling it locally will net little more than $60, while selling it on the coast nets $875. With two crops a years, that’s the difference between trying, often failing, to survive on pennies day, and earning enough to buy a family basic necessities, including a level of education for the children.
Destroyed military equipment litters the countrysideIt’s possible to stagger production within and among villages so that some produce can be sold on an annual contract basis. But agriculture is still largely a seasonal business, which makes up to date market information absolutely vital. The Gates Foundation and World Vision are working on filling that gap in Huambo. Lack of telecommunications infrastructure makes it very difficult, though.
The skeletal remains of utility transmission poles and towers are scattered throughout the province. Communications facilities were fought over and heavily mined during the war, and even today Huambo has one of the highest concentrations of landmines and active minefields on the planet.
Trunking within and out of Huambo is based on point to point microwaveChinese, Brazilian and Portuguese companies are rebuilding roads and rail lines, and in a couple of places underground fiber optic lines are reportedly going in at the same time. Angola Telecom, the government-owned PTT, provides landlines and phone service. Private carriers are beginning to appear, but it’s hard to tell if claims of progress are supported by facts on the ground. It’s possible to get a POTS line in some towns — after a long wait or a quick, under the table payment — but reliability is low. The bulk of day to day communication in Angola generally, and Huambo province in particular, is wireless.
There are two privately-owned mobile carriers, Movicel (CDMA) and Unitel (GSM). Coverage for both is relatively good in the capital of Luanda, although both regularly experience outages and have significant gaps. As a result, it’s common in urban areas for people to subscribe to both and carry two mobile phones.
In rural Huambo, where the agricultural development project is continuing, mobile network coverage is spotty. But spotty beats nothing at all. The next step in the project is to set up a commodity price reporting service from coastal markets, via SMS and MMS.
Luanda, the capital, has the consumers, Huambo has the produceThe Gates Foundation is funding market development programs, which establish contractual relationships with coastal supermarkets, restaurants and other wholesale buyers. Mobile phones could provide the essential link between those markets and smallholders in Huambo.
Longer term the hope is to extend Internet access into villages, to enable ongoing education and technical assistance from agricultural and marketing experts, in addition to current market data. Right now, the focus is on finding a sustainable way of paying for VSAT terminals, but a terrestrial solution – WiMAX, say – is likelier to succeed. Given the ample high ground around the agricultural valley, a handful of base stations, maybe as few as one or two, could service all the current project areas. Backhaul could be terrestrial or satellite-based, although much of the project-related traffic would be local and could be handled through what would be, in effect, a WAN.
Operating expenses have to be tighly controlled. Even taking full advantage of coastal market opportunities, cash flow will be at low levels relative to the cost of international VSAT service. The cost of bandwidth has to be proportional to the actual value added by any given application, which favors keeping as much traffic as possible on a local network.
Tellus Venture Associates is supporting a comprehensive development effort in Angola’s Huambo province. The project combines agricultural and marketing education, infrastructure building, seed (literally) capital, market development and microfinance. I became involved a couple of years ago when I helped my Rotary district raise $250,000 for the project, amounting to 25% of the first phase. The remaining 75% is from World Vision, a development and relief-focused NGO, and the Angolan government.
Manuel de Sousa, president of the Rotary Club of Luanda (left), and Steve Blum (right) at the EU/World Vision agricultural training center in Huambo province
In June 2009 I traveled to Huambo, with several fellow Rotarians, for due diligence on the current project as well as future needs assessment. The trip began for me in Cape Town, South Afica, where I met with District 9350’s leadership. Worldwide, Rotary is organized into about 500 districts, and the one that covers Angola is headquartered in Cape Town.
Building a potato seed warehouse at EU and World Vision training facilityFrom there I went to Luanda, Angola’s capital, to meet with the project managers and join the rest of the Rotary team. World Vision, a Seattle-based NGO, has overall management responsibility for the Huambo project, collaborating with Rotary as well as the European Union, the Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Angolan government and others.
Once everyone was in country, we flew to Huambo, located about 600 kilometers from Luanda, in the central highlands of Angola. It was ground zero for a 27 year civil war, that began in 1975 when the Portugese government abandoned its Angolan colony. The fighting was primarily between the U.S.-supported UNITA, based in Huambo, and the Soviet-backed MPLA, which counted Luanda as a stronghold and eventually achieved international recognition as the national government.
Party flag still flies over bombed-out UNITA headquarters in HuamboSouth African and Cuban troops supported the respective sides, as fighting swept back and forth across the province. The town of Huambo, Angola’s second largest city, changed hands several times and suffered heavy damage. In 2002, the last remnants of UNITA were defeated. The province is still inundated with landmines, despite years of de-mining operations by international organizations.
NGOs, such as World Vision and Rotary, the Angolan government and the international community are cooperating to rebuild Huambo, and develop a sustainable economy that can support the 3 or 4 million people who live in and around the province.
Planting Rotary-provided seed, a woman works with her baby on her back, a common sight in HuamboRotary’s $250,000 bought seed and fertilizer for 25 agricultural associations. These associations are based in villages that have access to a year-round source of water for gravity-fed irrigation, and have suitable soil and climate conditions for potato cultivation. Potatoes are transportable and can fetch up to $500 per ton in coastal market towns, making it an ideal cash crop for Angola.
Each association received extensive agricultural training, sponsored by the EU and World Vision, and planted test plots to determine the best potato variety to use and the optimum level of fertilizer application.
Off main roads, rough dirt tracks and makeshift bridges link farms to marketsThe Gates Foundation and others are funding market development programs for the village associations. Lack of transporation makes it difficult to reliably serve coastal markets. Roads and rail lines were devastated by the civil war, and the extensive mine fields make rebuilding a slow and careful process. Even so, the road to Luanda is nearly all re-paved and a rail line to the coast is scheduled to open in 2010.
Much of the civil infrastructure is being rebuilt by the Chinese government, and Brazilian and Portuguese companies are also very much in evidence. Angola is not a destitute country. It is one of the major oil producers in Africa, sometimes ranking as the top producer. But severe structural inefficiencies and trade barriers created by the formerly Marxist government, combined with what is reported to be (and, to the extent of my experience, appears to be) endemic corruption means relatively little money benefits ordinary Angolans.
Reviewing results from fertilizer application testing We reviewed the tender documents for the seed and fertilizer, verified it was in warehouses with proper inventory control procedures, and saw the beginning of planting by one of the associations. We also met with association leaders and government officials, visited the marketing, training and test plot programs, and saw a microfinance program in action.
I took the overland route back to Luanda, traveling nine hours in a Land Cruiser. Most of the road had been repaved since the war, but some sections, particularly river crossings, are still under construction.
The Kwanza River is Luanda’s lifelineOnce we left Huambo, the countryside was mostly undeveloped and sparsely settled, if not completely uninhabited. One reason was readily apparent: I saw minefield warnings and the remains of destroyed armored personnel carriers and light tanks most of the way. Only when we crossed the Kwanza River and approached Luanda did we see large towns and extensive development.
Our local Rotary team, from the Monterey and Fresno areas, will meet soon to plan next steps. At this point, we hope to raise another $250,000 that can once again be leveraged up into a million dollar project in Huambo.